There are a number of robots designed to help kids learn the basics of coding, but this is the first we’ve seen that comes equipped with a purple mane and a light-up horn.
Meet UnicornBot, a programmable robot kit that UBTECH Robotics is launching today. Recommended for children age 8 and up, it is on sale for US $120 on UBTECH’s site and retailers like Target and Amazon.
UBTECH, headquartered in Shenzen, China, with offices in Los Angeles, says UnicornBot “is for all children, but is especially designed to spark an interest in STEM among young girls.”
UnicornBot has an accompanying app for Android or iOS that helps you put the robot together by following step-by-step 3D instructions. The robot consists of some 400 parts and connectors, plus a main controller—unicorn brain—that receives data from a color sensor and sends instructions to the LED horn, a DC motor, and two servos.
With the app you can use the visual programming language Blockly to make UnicornBot move, nod its head, react to colored cards, and light up its horn. The programming is done by combining drag-and-drop coding blocks on the screen.
As with other robots that you can program with an app, we like the fact that kids can learn concepts like input, output, loops, and how changing parameters like the angle of the servos or the speed of the DC motor affect the robot’s behavior. The tricky part, however, is keeping kids interested after the initial excitement. Will unicorn magic help solve that challenge?
To learn more about UnicornBot and how UBTECH brought it to life, we spoke via email with Lindsay Aust, global director of product marketing at UBTECH Robotics and one of the designers of the robot.
IEEE Spectrum:How did the idea for UnicornBot come about? And what makes UnicornBot stand out compared to other STEM robots?
Lindsay Aust: When I first joined UBTECH, I was excited to show my daughter the lineup of existing JIMU Robots. She fit the target age range and was interested in coding, so I thought I was going to be parent of the year. Upon picking a kit and building, she thought the robot was fun to play with and she loved the Blockly coding aspect, but there wasn’t a strong connection to the character she had built. I realized there was an opportunity to expand on our already great line and introduce a robot that girls would more likely connect with in terms of characters and play patterns.
There are a ton of STEM toys and robots in the market these days—and I think this is fantastic. The idea of kids taking their play to the next level only makes them smarter and more valuable for our future and that is why UBTECH is in such great company by continuing our commitment to creating exciting, relevant tech toys.
Our UnicornBot stands out because it is one of the first robotic STEM toys to bring a new way of STEM learning to this audience. We’ve incorporated new (to the JIMU line) technology to our UnicornBot by adding a color sensor on the chest that users can program by coding different actions based on the color card chosen and a vibrantly lit LED horn that users can also code to different colors and color patterns. We use Blockly programming which fits perfectly into our age range for all levels of kids who are interested in coding. In looking at the STEM toy and robotic line up, there is nothing out there that appeals to these specific play patterns while building a robot that aligns to a character form factor that is popular and fun in current trends.
One of the challenges we’ve seen with consumer and educational robots is getting users to keep using the robots. They play with it for a few days and then toss it on a corner. How did you approach this challenge with UnicornBot?
It’s a great question, and it definitely seems to be a challenge with tech toys across the board. With UnicornBot, we wanted to make sure we make our experience exciting to continue coming back to, and that it isn’t the same build, play, code experience and over again. When kids think about this robot, we want their imaginations to fire up and think of the different possibilities they can build or code to. With all our JIMU Robots we encourage creating and building new and different creations from the kit and across any of our other JIMU robot kits. Specifically, with UnicornBot, we wanted to elevate this kit even further and later this year, we will introduce a new AR feature not found in any other JIMU Robot that will build upon the playability. The play can continue with both the physical robot and in the software later this year.
What are some of the things you’ve learned from the previous UBTECH robots that you applied in designing UnicornBot?
We’re lucky as a company and a brand to have customers that are great at giving feedback—kids. We do a lot of consumer insights, kid focus groups, and of course customer service. We felt strongly about creating a robot with specific play patterns and creative elements that is different than our other robots. We want to distinguish a new series and kit that appeals to a bigger, broader audience. In designing UnicornBot, we wanted to make sure we created a tech-forward, kick-butt robot for kids interested in STEM, and especially girls who are interested in these types of activities.
Can you describe some of your—and your daughter’s—favorite features or things to do with the robot?
My daughter’s and my favorite feature is definitely the magical LED horn. In designing the form factor and the functionality behind the horn, the idea was to empower girls to create their own magic via programming different colors and aligning to the UnicornBot’s actions and emotions. My daughter had the idea to correlate the change of lighting to emotions, so it’s really fun to program UnicornBot to nod her head vigorously as if she is mad while her horn lights up red. It’s a fun as well as rewarding experience to correlate those actions.
Do you expect a robot like UnicornBot to be used in schools for STEM education?
Our education program is another top priority for our North America office. We launched UBTECH’s education business and the UKit program at the ISTE (International Society of Technology in Education) trade show in June of this year. The education side of the business focuses on our UKit products that allow multiple children (up to 4) to work on one kit, making these kits more collaborative and cost effective for building STEM classes and Maker Spaces. While UnicornBot is not a robot currently in any of these kits, my hope is to see the kids create their own version of a UnicornBot in the classroom or ask their parents for additional JIMU Robots, including our UnicornBot.
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Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.