Operate an Arduino-controlled robotic arm… manipulate the real world using Minecraft… steer a car with a smartphone… pilot a quadcopter using bananas.
Now see your drawing digitally enhanced by Dan. Take a crash course in coding with Scratch. Program cars to win races, and spaceships to reach home planets, before watching light-sensing robots find route-one along a maze of black masking tape.
Kids Adore Ditch, conceived by James @Monkchips Governor just a couple of weeks ago as a creative solution to the challenge of bring-your-kids-to-work-day, gave a group of thirty or more 5 to 12 year-old youngsters the opportunity to do all this and more.
It took place
today yesterday at Shoreditch Village Hall in Hoxton, staffed and supported by the Shoreditch Works team with a cheerfulness and enthusiasm that ought to be the envy of anybody running this sort of shared space.
Following James’ introduction the young delegates were given the chance to get hands-on with all sorts of activities around the unifying theme of ‘robots’.
Here’s a complete rundown:
The first thing that strikes most people when they see a quadcopter in action is its phenomenal grace and poise. That’s because the first quadcopter most people see isn’t being piloted by young children cutting their teeth on a banana-based quadcopter guidance system.
This was the undoubted centrepiece of the event, occupying a space in the middle of the room the boundaries of which were under constant renegotiation. If one of the themes of the day was the anthropomorphisation of robots, here was a lively character with an exuberance that could easily be mistaken for egregious expansionism.
Presented by IBM’s Joshua Carr | @josh_schwaa
Built on IBM’s WebSphere Application Server Liberty Profile is Code Rally, “a free, open source racing game with a twist – instead of racing around a track using a controller you write an AI (Artificial Intelligence) to race for you!”
Ask a 5-12 year-old boy whether they want to start their race (a) slowly, (b) quickly or (c) aggressively and you’ll only get one answer. As such it was fun to see them consistently outmanoeuvred by typically more reserved female counterparts (who, commendably, matched them at the event in number and enthusiasm).
There was also the opportunity here to drive ‘Liberty Car’, pictured above, using browser-based controls communicating with the car via its very own wi-fi network. This was another of the day’s peripatetic participants, patrolling a large counterpart in the kamikaze shadow of its airborne opposite number.
Presented by IBM’s Rob Parker
It’s easy to feel a bit more enthusiastic about the future once you’ve met Romilly and his robots. They’re cheerful little things that use light sensors to patiently explore pathways of black masking tape, with Romilly their benevolent overlord equally patient in his explanation of exactly why they behave the way they do.
If watching one such robot ‘learn’ the most direct route between two points affords a flush of vicarious pride, it’s difficult not to feel a little cruel when you watch another eagerly set about solving the problem of a continuous line.
Presented by Romilly Cocking | @rareblog | more info
LOST IN SPACE
“A computer-game which explored Physics concepts such as momentum, gravity, elements and their mass. ‘Lost in Space’ saw students aiding a stranded space craft to reach its home planet by travelling through wormholes.”
One of a number of activities developed for IBM’s 2014 Blue Fusion event, this saw kids teaming up and working together, resulting in all the drama and excitement of Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY with none of the histrionics.
Presented by IBM
Once you’ve turned up with your very own robotic arm, complete with assorted modifications conceived to improve its ability to pick up an object and put it down six inches to the right, it’s kind of job done. That’s the thing about robotic arms. They’re just cool.
Then one of the kids tries to repeat the operation using only the remote camera view. Distance is no object, they could be making essential repairs to the International Space Station. Something goes wrong! OMG, THE BALL DIDN’T LAND IN THE CUP. GRAVITY again, this time histrionics and all.
Presented by Jim Williams | @jimekw | more info
MINECRAFT: PI EDITION
There seems to be a consensus emerging that Minecraft will hold the same significance for kids today as Lego did for those of us who’ve gone on to fashion careers for ourselves making and breaking the Internet.
Minecraft: Pi Edition is a version of Minecraft designed to work on the Raspberry Pi, harnessing the game’s familiar visual interface to manipulate of the credit-card sized computer and, crucially, anything you care to attach to it. Yup, that’s right, someone go get me that robotic arm.
Presented by Neil C Ford | @neilcford | more info
CODING WITH SCRATCH
As somebody who distracted myself from an arts degree by teaching myself how to author web pages, it was heartening to hear Linda Sandvik describe distracting herself from an arts degree by teaching herself how to author web pages.
Linda went on to co-found Code Club, a voluntary initiative in the UK aimed at teaching children aged 9 to 11 how to code. It was testimony to her that most of the kids seemed to end the half hour session discovering authoring tool Scratch feeling like they were only just getting started.
Presented by Linda Sandvik | @hyper_linda | more info
There can’t be a more analogue activity guaranteed to keep a young mind busy than that implied by a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. The twist being that in this instance our artists were able to watch Dan (one of the day’s many distinguished Dans) bring their doodles to digital life. Here’s a selection:
Presented by Dan
Hakitzu Elite: Robot Hackers pitches itself ‘an epic, robot combat game, where you learn the basics of coding while battling customizable robots’. The work of games developer Kuato Studios, it offers a glimpse of how seamlessly education can now exist alongside entertainment, taking the guiding principles of programming and realising them as spectacular 3D gameplay. But hell, don’t take my word for it, it’s available free on iTunes and Google Play.
Presented by Kuato Studios | @KuatoStudios | more info
* * *
James wrapped up the day with a look at a few familiar robotic faces from the world of film, challenging his audience to divide them into good and bad. Not a trivial undertaking and one entirely devoid of consensus. R2D2 and C3PO were considered problematically argumentative, while the feeling was that the renegade robotic steering wheel in WALL-E was simply misunderstood: “He’s a good robot. He’s just gone haywire.”
Back to reality, and a shock of hands flew up with suggestions for the mischief a robotic vacuum cleaner might get up to. Most of these, perhaps unsurprisingly, involved sucking up something other than domestic detritus: a cat, your feet, your money, ALL your possessions and, on a suitably terminal note, the whole world and everything in it.
If you have a child of 5 to 12 years of age, and they haven’t already had the opportunity to grapple with a robotic arm and/or Asimov’s three laws of robotics, keep an eye on the Kids Adore Ditch homepage ahead of next half-term. I haven’t written up an event like this since Playful 2010 for the simple reason that I haven’t been to an event as fun, friendly and altogether worthwhile since. Not until yesterday.