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Kids’ taste in toys change from generation to generation, but as parents with preteens will tell you, one thing never goes out of style: cardboard. (See: Nintendo Labo.) That conceit was the driving force behind The Crafty Robot‘s Smartibot, an artificial intelligence-enabled cardboard robot kit that teaches kids the fundamentals of circuitry, motors, and code.
“When we were making Smartibot, we were really focused on three things,” Ross Atkin, one of Smartibot’s four cofounders and a part of a team of inventors on the BBC’s The Big Life Fix, told VentureBeat in an email. “The first was to give people a platform they could get creative with really easily …The second thing we wanted to do was give people a really easy way to get hands-on with an AI … [And] the last thing we focused on, almost to an obsessive level, was how to keep the price down. Every design decision we made on Smartibot was driven by the question, ‘How can we make this as fun and enabling as possible for the minimum price to the customer?'”
Smartibot, which launched on Kickstarter today and starts at about $40 for U.S.-based customers, comes with everything you need to get a miniature robot up and running: a sheet of cardboard that folds into one of three designs, one of which can carry coffee mugs; a circuit board; several motors; and a battery box that takes four AA cells. An embedded Bluetooth chip allows you to remote-control your creation with a smartphone.
One of the bot’s configurations has you slot your smartphone into a cardboard holster, and uses a computer vision algorithm to identify cars, dogs, people, and other objects. That’s where the AI comes in — the Smartibot app lets you program routines that take advantage of its object-detecting prowess. After a few minutes of dragging and dropping control elements in a design grid, you can have the robot chase your cat, follow a toy car around the house, or bring you a cup of coffee.
“Another benefit of running the AI on the smartphone is that we can easily and securely add extra capabilities to everyone’s robots by updating the app,” Atkin said. “We’re planning on getting a gesture recognition AI and a voice recognition one into the app quite soon after we ship the robots. After that, we are going to start working on new AI using our own training data, that should allow for some super fun interactions between robots. Ideally, I’d really like to give users the tools to train up their own AI to use in their robots.”
Smartibot’s versatility doesn’t stop there. Hardware hobbyists can attach the kit’s circuit board and other components to anything their heart desires, be it Legos or RC cars (or a potato, as Smartibot’s founders suggest). The platform supports up to 14 motors — 4 DC motors and 10 servo motors — and can plug into other motorized toys. In fact, Atkin claims that Smartibot can control anything that runs on four or fewer AA batteries, including home appliances, electrical fans, and lights.
“MakeCode is a really fantastic platform for kids and anyone who is new to coding, so I’m really happy to be working with Microsoft to onboard Smatrtibot to the platform,” Atkin said. “After that is done, we are planning on adding MicroPython as we think that is a really nice progression as people get more confident coding. All our code sits on top of an opensource C++ environment called CODAL, so users will also be able to program their robots with C++ if they are into that sort of thing.”
The team plans to ship Smartibot kits to backers in October and November of this year, but the company is already hard at work on expansion modules. The first two, a 144-LED fully programmable display and a board with laser distance and a gesture sensor, will launch later this year.
This is the second crowdfunding campaign for London-based startup The Crafty Robot, which launched the eponymous Crafty Robot — a USB-powered programmable bot that ships with decorative cardboard templates — in 2015. It shipped 1,600 units in all, Atkin said.
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