LAS VEGAS — There are scores of robots designed to teach kids coding skills, but most are either targeted toward young children with limited programming experience, or older kids whose skills are more advanced. Available in June for $199, Root is designed to help people of all ages —starting as young as age four, but going up to adulthood — graduate from simple block-based programming to working with complex, written code.
We observed the Root firsthand at CES 2018. The black-and-white, disc-shaped robot has the ability raise and lower a marker as it rolls around on an included dry-erase surface. You can program the robot to draw, to avoid obstacles, to follow lines and more.
Among its many sensors and actuators, the Root has a color sensor on the bottom, and bumpers than can sense when you tap them. There's also a magnet in the bottom of the robot that lets it climb up walls, provided that you stick it to a surface that has metal underneath, such as a whiteboard.
I had a chance to spend a few minutes with the Root, and was impressed with its attractive design, strong build quality and wide array of features. However, Root's programming app, which runs on iOS (with an Android version coming later), is the real star of the show.
When it launches in June, the app will have two different modes: a code mode, which lets you program whatever you want, and a game mode, which offers a fun, step-by-step challenge. Root Robotics, the company behind Root, is targeting both schools and parents. That way, instructors can have their kids go straight to the code mode as part of a lesson, while children at home can use the game mode to teach themselves.
The version of the app we saw only had code mode, which is compelling all by itself. The code editor lets you switch between three different skill levels. Level 1 is a block-based language with icons on all of the squares, and almost no words. This level works well for pre-literate kids, and people who are programming for the very first time.
Credit: Tom's GuideLevel 2 also uses blocks, but they contain a lot of text, and can be nested inside each other to make more complicated programs. Level 3 shows you actual text that's written in Apple's popular Swift language. You don't use a keyboard to type, but instead drag the appropriate code up from a palette on the bottom of the screen. Very advanced users will also be able to use an SDK to control the Root.
By helping kids advance from dragging simple blocks, to nesting more complex ones, and eventually viewing text, Root is getting them ready for the adult programming world. Most robot kits either offer simple, text-free blocks (Lego Boost) like you see in Root's Level 1, or the more complex blocks that appear in Level 2 (Jimu Robots). Even if the robot has both types of block (Anki Cozmo), it usually doesn't let you also work with written code. In this regard, the Root really stands out.
Root is available for pre-order right now, but won't begin shipping until June.