I cover enterprise emerging technology at 451 Research but I also still have an interest in the unusual and interesting especially when it is related to helping anyone experiment and learn what is possible as a maker or a programmer. In the run up to Christmas I thought I would share a couple of the projects that recently arrived after I backed and paid for on Kickstarter that are now generally available. Both enable programmable robot vehicles, both are aimed to educate as well as entertain, and both are aimed at kids and also makers in equal measure. They both would have been an ideal slot on the Cool Stuff Collective, the ITV Saturday morning kids show I was lucky enough to be resident super g33k on in 2010/11. Each kit looks on the surface like they are the same thing, but they provide a very different perspective on technology. One is Sphero’s RVR and the other is Neurotinker’s Neurobytes.

Roving Rover

Sphero have been producing interesting programmable robot kits for a while, the RVR (Rover) is actually a little more traditional in its design than rolling robots but fits nicely into the portfolio. It is an iPad sized vehicle with 4 wheels and a caterpillar track on each side. A removable rechargeable battery slides into the base. The RVR has a set of onboard sensors and ways to communicate with it. It has a light sensor, colour sensor and motion detection with magnetometer, gyroscope and an accelerometer. It also has Infrared receive and broadcast capability and Bluetooth low energy (BLE) too. The device also has a set of colour changing lights front and back. Sphero has its own programming application called Sphero Edu which is where the programming of the bot comes into play. Rather than just restrict this use of the RVR to those able to write code it has several modes of operation. The simplest is the ability to draw a track and have the RVR follow that track. The next step up form that is to use it variation of the Scratch visual programming language to describe in code blocks what the RVR should do. It is here that all the sensors can be interrogated and used to give the device some behaviour. Physical computing is a great way to get into programming as it is very obvious what is happening. There is also a full software development kit (SDK) so programmers can dive in with more traditional code. Where the RVR gets really good for makers though, is it also has a 4 pin UART port (Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter) able to send and receive data to other devices that can be attached to the RVR body. This is designed for Arduino’s, micro:bit’s and of course Raspberry Pi’s. This opens up the ability to make the device a fully autonomous vehicle or carry payloads such as a robot arm. Tech providers Sparkfun have a kit available for pre-order with a Pi Zero W and a pan and tilt camera design specifically to make it autonomous. I only have one RVR but it is able to communicate to others, as well as some other Sphero products so it has the potential to be part of a flock or fleet of autonomous robots. Certainly, exiting potential there!

OK Brain…

In the words of Homer Simpson, “OK brain, you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but let’s get through this so I can get back to killing you with beer.” In this case though, the brain is very much the inspiration behind Neurotinker’s Neurobytes. The NeuroBuggy is one of a number of kits that shows ways to use the Neurobytes components. These small pieces of hardware that mimic how neurons work on the body. Unlike many other kit-based electronics projects there is actually no code to write or send to these devices. It is how you wire them together, in what order and then how you train, or suggest to them how they should work. The buggy kit has a number of suggested configurations, for example, photo receptors components are placed on the front of the vehicle, then wired to interneurons that in turn are wired to motor neurons. The circuit is powered by a tonic neuron (from 4 AA batteries. The neurons, especially the interneurons, have more than one input and output each of which provides a different level of stimulus to the system. Each neuron also has a small button or two and a multi-colour flashing led, that’s it for user interface. To get the buggy to do something, such drive into a light area you calibrate the photo sensor by zeroing it for ambient light and indicating with a button press what should allow it to send an impulse to the interneuron. That in turn trains the interneuron as to the levels that should trigger it, which is done by putting the interneuron in training mode. Once the levels are set it can be switch back to normal mode with its button. It in turn will then trigger the motor neuron, which can be set to pulse or continuous, the latter be more relevant to drive the wheels. Once tolerance levels are learned they remain whether powered or not, so you don’t keep retraining the device each time. This is a basic use of the interneuron; much more complex ones allow it to take multiple inputs that may trigger thresholds to fire based on different logic. It is not a binary system, neurons get to triggered levels of excitement but that can be reinforced or discouraged. The kit comes with lots of good descriptions of how the real organic components work. This analogue style organic programming (which I am sure we used to call fuzzy logic when I was at university) is a refreshing change to just writing code. The components don’t have to be added to a vehicle, with kits and projects designed for schools to show how the eye works, or skin senses pressure.

Conclusion

Technology is a big draw for all of us, but often we drop into simply being users, not creators of it. Both these, and many other interesting products and projects out there, show a way to get into creating in the same way many of us older programmers were able to back in the 80’s. Hopefully this Christmas there will be a few more kits like these trees.