24aug

Osmo Turns Blocks Into Code to Teach Kids Programming

THE BEST PROGRAMMERS turn complex code into intuitive tools that anyone can use. And those tools are easier than ever to master, requiring little more than a swipe or a tap. Interacting with code is so instinctive that even cats know how to do it.

Now the challenge is figuring out how to make creating code as easy as using it. Osmo does that by turning abstract “building blocks” of computer programs into actual, real-world building blocks. The goal is to make the process so simple that a five-year-old can create code without having to read an O’Reilly book.

Osmo Coding is the latest game for the Osmo platform. Like the company’s previous efforts, the game is all about blending physical and digital objects, letting kids play in the real world while using the iPad as an all-seeing scorekeeper.

The game started as Ariel Zekelman and Felix Hu’s student project at the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning (TIDAL) Lab at Northwestern University. Zekelman, an industrial designer, and engineer Hu tried to bring tangible-learning research into the real world of programming. The initial version of their game was called Strawbies, and looks a lot like it does today. “As I was designing this,” Zekelman says, “I was learning to code. My epiphany was that coding isn’t difficult, it’s really just a way of thinking. That’s what we tried to teach, that it’s a way of thinking and a way of problem-solving. We wanted to literally make those building blocks that can teach kids how to think about it.” Now, Zekelman and Hu both work at Osmo full-time.

Osmo Coding begins with an assortment of modular magnetic blocks. You snap together numbered blocks along with commands such as “run,” “jump,” and “grab,” as you guide a tiny monster named Awbie on his eternal quest for more strawberries. One useful block looks like a repeat button on a music player and lets kids loop chunks of code, and you can twist parts of the blocks to send Awbie in a new direction.

The game’s most ingenious design touch is its analog “run” button. None of the blocks require a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection to the iPad—all the commands on the tiles are visually recognized by the attachment-equipped camera. But pressing the big “play” button runs the code compiled by the blocks. It opens two little portholes on the top of the block, which the iPad camera recognizes as an input command.

Other than the numbers on a few of them, there’s no text on the blocks. That helps make the game more accessible to young kids who speak any language, and the hands-on aspects of arranging and experimenting with the blocks make it more engaging.

“There’s a lot of talk about coding being the next essential learning experience for children,” says Osmo CEO and co-founder Pramod Sharma. He sees Osmo Coding as a fun introduction to the thinking and logic of computer science, while teaching more complex ideas as the game goes along. “We think there’s sort of a ‘Lego coding’ concept that’s missing, the kind of product that gets kids excited about it. You don’t have to push anyone to learn coding, they’ll just want to do it on their own. You never have to teach a kid how to build with Legos. They always just go ahead and build something, and it’s open-ended.”

Once the game hits the market, Osmo hopes the blocks become a platform unto themselves. The concept is intended to be as modular as the unique blocks used to play it—it’s all just blocks of code, after all. Additional and advanced sets of blocks may be introduced over time, and this first set could be used for upcoming Osmo games. “That was one of the goals, that the language could be used across the platform,” Zekelman says.

Osmo Coding costs $49 for the game, or $98 if you haven’t already bought the camera attachment and iPad base station too. You’ll find it in the Apple Store beginning today—which, by the way, will make Zekelman, its 23-year-old designer, the youngest person to have a product featured there.

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