Sony Unveils Swarm Robots for Kids

Sony recently unveiled Toio, an educational robotics toy for young programmers. We all know Sony as an electronics giant, but they do dabble in robotics from time to time. The AIBO dog family is probably their most famous creation, though there is also QRIO, a bipedal humanoid, and on the stranger side, the Rolly.

Toio consists of two small cube robots which roll around the desktop. You can control them with handheld rings, or run programs on them. The robots are charged by a base station, which also has a cartridge slot. Sony is marketing this as an ecosystem that can be expanded by buying packs which consist of accessories and a software cartridge. It looks like the cartridge is yet another proprietary memory card format. Is Sony ever going to learn?

There isn’t much hard information on Toio yet. We know it will be released in Japan on December 1st and will cost around ¥ 20,000, or about 200 USD. No word yet on a worldwide release.

The striking thing about this kit is how well the two robots know each other’s position. Tape a paper pair of pants, and they “walk” like two feet. Attach a paper linkage between them, and they turn in perfect sync, like two gears. Add some paper strips, and the two robots work together to form a gripper.  We can only guess that Sony is using cameras on the bottom of each robot to determine position — possibly with the aid of an encoded work surface — similar to Anoto paper. Whatever technology it is, here’s to hoping Sony puts out an SDK for researchers and hackers to get in on the fun with these little robots.

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These Engineering Ed Projects are Our Kind of Hacks

Highly polished all-in-one gear for teaching STEM is one way to approach the problem. But for some, they can be intimidating and the up-front expenditure can be a barrier to just trying something before you’re certain you want to commit. [Miranda] is taking a different approach with the aim of making engineering education possible with junk you have around the house. The point is to play around with engineering concepts with having to worry about doing it exactly right, or with exactly the right materials. You know… hacking!

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Hacker U.

If you go to the University of South Florida, you can take the “Makecourse.” The 15-week program promises to teach CAD software, 3D printing, Arduino-based control systems, and C++. Don’t go to the University of South Florida? No worries. Professor [Rudy Schlaf] and [Eric Tridas] have made the entire course available online. You can see several videos below, but there are many more. The student project videos are great, too, like [Catlin Ryan’s] phase of the moon project (see below) or [Dustin Germain’s] rover (seen above).

In addition to a lesson plan and projects, there’s a complete set of videos (you can see a few below). If you are a regular Hackaday reader, you probably won’t care much about the basic Arduino stuff and the basic electronics–although a good review never hurts anyone. However, the more advanced topics about interrupts, SDCards, pin change interrupts might be just the thing. If you ever wanted to learn Autodesk Inventor, there are videos for that, too.

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Veni, Vidi, ViciLogic Teaches You Digital Logic Interactively

This is about the time of the year you realize you aren’t going to keep all of those new year’s resolutions you made. However, if one of them was to learn VHDL and FPGAs, you might be in luck. Vicilogic has a free course in Fundamentals of Digital Systems. You do have to register, but it didn’t even verify our e-mail address, so it shouldn’t be too onerous to sign up.

Associated with the National University of Ireland Galway, the training is high quality and offers animated demos in your browser of the digital circuitry. You can even control the demos yourself. You’d think the work was occurring in some browser script, but according to the site, the demos are tied to real FPGA boards. You can supposedly look in on them as you use them with a video stream, but we never saw that working so your mileage may vary. If you want a preview of what it looks like, check out the video below. There’s guided exercises and also quizzes where you have to interact with the demos.

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One Micro Bit Accomplishes Its Goal

Like the Raspberry Pi, the BBC Micro Bit had a goal of being foremost an educational device. Such an inexpensive computer works well with the current trend of cutting public school budgets wherever possible while still being able to get kids interested in coding and computers in general. While both computers have been co-opted by hackers for all kinds of projects (the Pi especially), [David]’s latest build keeps at least his grandkids interested in computers by using the Micro Bit to add some cool features to an old toy.

The toy in question is an old Scalextric slot car racetrack – another well-known product of the UK. But what fun is a race if you can’t keep track of laps or lap times? With the BBC Mirco Bit and some hardware, the new-and-improved racetrack can do all of these things. It also implements a drag race-style light system to start the race and can tell if a car false starts. It may be a little difficult to intuit all of the information that the Micro Bit is displaying on its LED array, but it shouldn’t take too much practice.

The project page goes into great detail on how the project was constructed. Be sure to check out the video below for some exciting races! The build is certain to entertain [David]’s grandkids for some time, as well as help them get involved with programming and building anything that they can imagine. Maybe they’ll even get around to building a robot or two.

Thanks to [Mark] for sending in this tip!

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RFID Stethoscope Wheezes and Murmurs for Medical Training

You’d think that with as many sick people as there are in the world, it wouldn’t be too difficult for a doctor in training to get practice. It’s easy to get experience treating common complaints like colds and the flu, but it might take the young doctor a while to run across a dissecting abdominal aortic aneurysm, and that won’t be the time for on the job training.

Enter the SP, or standardized patient – people trained to deliver information to medical students to simulate a particular case. There’s a problem with SPs, though. While it’s easy enough to coach someone to deliver an oral history reflecting a medical condition, the student eventually needs to examine the SP, which will reveal none of the signs and symptoms associated with the simulated case. To remedy this, [Chris Sanders] and [J Scott Christianson] from the University of Missouri developed an open-source RFID stethoscope to simulate patient findings.

This is one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. A cheap stethoscope is fitted with an Arduino, and RFID reader, and a small audio board. RFID tags are placed at diagnostic points over an SP’s chest and abdomen. When the stethoscope is placed over a tag, a specific sound file is fetched from an SD card and played over earbuds. The student doesn’t have to ask, “What am I hearing?” anymore – the actual sound of bruits or borborygmi are heard.

We can easily see expanding this system – RFID tags that trigger a faux ultrasound machine to display diagnostic images, or tiny OLED screens displaying tagged images into an otoscope. A good place to start expanding this idea might be this digital stethoscope recorder and analyzer.

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Coding as a Foreign Language

How many of you speak more than one language? Since Hackaday is an English-language site whose readership is world-wide, we are guessing quite a lot of you are not monoglots. Did you learn your second or third languages at school, and was it an experience you found valuable? How about your path into software? If you are a coder, were you self-taught or was your school responsible for that as well?

It’s been a constant of the last few decades, officials and politicians in charge of education worrying that tech-illiterate children are being churned out of schools ill-equipped for the Jobs Of Tomorrow, and instituting schemes to address the issue. One of the latest of these ideas has come our way from Florida, and it’s one that has sparked some controversy. It sounds simple enough, make coding equivalent to language learning when it comes to credits in Floridian high schools.

You might think that this idea would be welcome, but instead it has attracted criticism from those concerned that it will become an either-or choice in cash-strapped school districts. This could lead to kids without an extra language being at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for higher education. There are also concerns that the two subjects are not equivalent, and should not be conflated.

It’s difficult from the perspective of an adult technical journalist without a background in education to speculate on the relative benefits to young minds of either approach. It is very likely though that just as with previous generations the schools will discover that there is limited benefit in pushing coding at kids with little aptitude or interest in it, and that the benefits in terms of broader outlook and intellectual exercise gained by learning another language might be lost.

Which was more valuable to you at school, coding or learning a language? Were you of the generation that learned coding through BASIC from the manual that came with your home computer, and should today’s kids be doing the same with Scratch and Python on boards like the Raspberry Pi? Let us know in the comments.

Child at computer image: Nevit Dilmen [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.