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Toy Robots Teach Kids How to Code

Meet Bo and Yana. These two toy robots can play sounds, detect movement, flash their lights and learn from their surroundings  — Bo can even roll around on the ground and play the xylephone. But Bo and Yana aren't just for entertainment; the robots are also designed to teach children how to code.

Bo doesn't have a remote control like some other toy robots. Instead, kids program behaviors for him via an iPad app that represents pieces of code as recombinable building blocks. Developed by Mountain View, California-based startup Play-i and intended for use in homes as well as schools, Bo and Yana will ship this October for $199 and $69 respectively.

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The app used to control Bo and Yana is based on Blockly, a child-friendly graphical programming editor developed by Google. The app lets kids user their fingers to drag and position code blocks into shapes that represent executable programs. For example, in a demo in New York City, Play-i CEO  Vikas Gupta programmed Bo so that, if the robot encounters an obstacle, he will try to push through it. If Bo fails, however, he will "learn" that he can't push that obstacle over, and in the future will not try to do so.

Using the app's programming interface, you can also program the robots to move in specified patterns, flash their lights and play various prerecorded noises. Optional attachments further expand the robots' abilities. Bo has a xylephone ($39) that plays via an attachable arm clipped to the side of the robot's head. Using another iOS app, kids can create music for Bo to play, or play predesigned music scores. 

Another interesting accessory, the Building Brick Extension ($19), turns Bo and Yana's heads into a surface for building with Legos. At our demo, Gupta showed off an elephant-shaped mask he'd built for Bo's head out of Legos, then quickly programmed Bo to make an elephant noise.

The Play-i apps will all be freely available on the Apple app store, and work by connecting to the robots via Bluetooth 4.0. The Android version of the programming app will be live by the time the robots ship, Gupta said, and will be usable on any Bluetooth-equipped Android device, with other apps to follow.

Play-i has also made the robots' API available for other developers to create new apps for interacting with the robots, which will let more advanced programmers use more nuanced languages. Gupta said that some of these third-party apps may be available on the app store when the robots launch.

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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She previously worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation.