Carnegie Mellon spinoff’s toys teach technology by making it fun
An imagination geared toward making robots from cardboard boxes can quickly fade once the lure of playtime is replaced with a fear of science and technology learning. But a team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers are betting that a toy designed to bring cardboard friends to life could be the tool that makes creating technology just another part of play.
The Hummingbird—a kit featuring electronic sensors, motors, and everything else required to turn a craft project into a robot—was unrolled for commercial sale in July after six years of research.
The kit, which was developed through CMU’s CREATE Lab, also features simple programming software that allows students who are just learning the ins and outs of technology to customize their robots with distinct sounds, movements, and other defining features. The kits are being sold for $119 through a CMU spinoff company, BirdBrain Technologies.
“We want students to become inventors of technology rather than users of technology,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, CMU robotics professor who leads CREATE Lab, in a press release. “Hummingbird feeds a student’s natural curiosity about technology by enabling her to incorporate robotics into something she is making that is meaningful or useful.”
Initially created for CREATE Lab’s Arts & Bots program—an initiative to encourage interest in technology among middle school students—Hummingbird has been through several iterations before reaching its current stage, said CREATE Lab senior research associate Emily Hamner.
The original idea was to create robots that express emotions and feelings to draw interest from young girls. The idea was that girls would keep a diary, and the robot would act out feelings expressed in their entries.
After a series of workshops with girls at the Sarah Heinz House, the idea of sharing diary entries was soundly dismissed, although everyone seemed excited by the notion of an emotive robot.
“They liked that a robot could be expressive and tell stories. That’s much different from a robot that launches Ping-Pong balls,” Hamner said.
With emotional expression, dancing, and general flexibility in movement being some of the key requests from students, CREATE Lab narrowed down what types of tools and equipment could be used to help students create the robots of their desires.
BirdBrain CEO and CREATE Lab alumnus Tom Lauwers said each kit contains DC motors and a master controller to manage movement but also features motion-detecting sensors and servos to allow for specific ranges of movement (raised arms or eyebrows), sound detectors, and color-changing LED lights, which are typically used to change eye color.