Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the first Liverpool MakeFest event on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.
In a sea of wheeled robots, the Ohbot stand in Liverpool Library's Reading Room stands out. As the guests peer at the company's creations, so too do the creations peer back at them. "We just think that a head is a really good way of engaging with children, and we find particularly it engages children who aren't normally very interested in technology," explains Mat Walker, the programmer behind the Ohbot educational robot kit. "Even people with special needs and English as a second language and so on, you can have that interaction with a face that you don't get through a turtle or through a text-based interface."
Built from laser-cut wood or plastic and boasting surprisingly realistic eyes, there's not a great deal of intelligence built into the robots themselves. "It's got six servo motors built in, they're controlled by a little servo interface board," Mat explains, as the Ohbot in question swivels its head to peer up at its creator with eyes to which you can't help but ascribe curiosity, "and it's all run from a Windows PC." That's where the magic happens: "We provide software to install onto a PC that runs it, and that software has this whole Scratch-like programming environment for children to use, plus an Ohbot simulation and also a camera interface: one of the sensors that can be brought into the Ohbot programming environment is a camera with face-tracking."
Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming language designed specifically for early-years education, is a good fit for a robot kit aimed at Key Stage 2 children in primary school environments. "Dan is a teacher and an ICT co-ordinator," Mat explains of his partner-in-robotics Dan Warner. "He introduced me to Scratch, so it was the first time I'd seen it last year, and I think it's great. I think it's a really good way of getting children started. I think you get to a point where you need to switch to a text-based language, but Scratch is a very good way of starting off.
"In the same way that kids are learning Scratch at school to move icons around and do that sort of thing, and some are using Scratch for Arduino to do some simple interfacing," Mat continues, "we think this takes it a step further, really. They can control the whole behaviour of a robot using a Scratch programming language. So, the robot doesn't move at all when you first put it together; everything that it does and the way that it moves and reacts to you is done through Scratch programming. But it also has speech recognition built-in, and speech synthesis, so you can type words into Scratch and have them spoken, and all of the programming constructs that Scratch has like loops, and if-then and so on."
"'Freaky! That's freaky!' That's always the first thing," Dan adds, laughing while acting out a child's typical first reaction to seeing an Ohbot in action. "'wow, that's really freaky!' Which is a great starting point, and then we can talk about why it's freaky. Robotics is such a fascinating topic for children to engage with, just to talk about robots is enough. The whole idea about why it might be freaky and why they might respond like that, is interesting to explore. Also, the place of robots and addressing things like their misunderstandings, and a lot of those come from seeing so many fictional robots. They almost always ascribe capabilities to robots that we're years away, or possibly will never even have. So, an example we always talk about is R2D2, and the intelligence of R2D2 and the fact that when we look at pictures actually there was a person inside, and we're nowhere near developing robots that are anywhere near as intelligent as R2D2 is. That's often an interesting starting point for work on robotics."
The idea of creating what amounts to a Scratch-controlled animatronic head for primary education, a market flooded by 'turtle' style robots which follow a programmed course along a table or floor, is novel, but key to Dan and Mat's joint vision. "All children can relate to a face, and so it gives it a real purpose that they can immediately identify," Dan explains. "Being challenged to make it talk, we can immediately know what we mean by 'talking,' so children have a real objective to work towards that they can recognise. I think that helps, that whole idea of learning being purposeful. I think there's something about a head that engages children in ways that other things don't, and that's really being able to relate to it as something they are familiar with, as a head, and then being able to recognise when they're creating a program if it doesn't work you can immediately see 'it didn't say hello,' or 'its mouth didn't move when it said hello' or whatever, so what can we do then to fix it.
"It becomes much more tangible, I think, than some of the abstract stuff that goes on with floor robots, for instance. I think that's where it has a real place, and the whole excitement about this is challenging that dominance and trying to bring some more diversity into primary schools. I think primary school education can sometimes sometimes a bit too conservative in terms of what they explore and what they use and the robots that they're exploring. In times of huge change now around robots taking over jobs that even just a few years ago were done by people, and robots are doing them now, I think it's such an important thing to ensure that children understand how robots work and how digital devices work and are able to program them to do real-world things. So, that's, yeah, that's what this is about!"
The Ohbot launched at the Bett Show in January, and enjoyed a successful crowd-funding campaign to produce the first batch of £99 kits. "We've had feedback from that batch of people and we've now fed that into the second batch," Mat explains, "so we're now just starting to launch the second batch of Ohbots." More information is available from the official website, ohbot.co.uk.