Lauren Goode

Recent Posts by Lauren Goode

Play-i’s Personal Robots Take Shape, as Company Launches Crowdfunding Campaign

Add “personal robot” to your child’s Christmas list for next year.

Play-i, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup made up of a group of engineers from Google, Apple and Frog Design, has just launched a crowdfunding campaign for the production of its upcoming product: Sphere-shaped robots meant to help kids learn how to code.

Targeted at kids age 5 through 8, the Play-i Robots work by wirelessly connecting, via Bluetooth, to a touch-enabled mobile device like an iPad. Then, using a visual programming language like kid-friendly Scratch, the child can string together commands on the iPad and tell the robot what to do.

The robots, called Yana (the storyteller robot) and Bo (the “explorer”), will cost $49 and $149 during the company’s crowdfunding campaign, and $20 more when they come to retail next summer. For $189, you can buy them both, and for $499 you get the robots plus access to Play-i’s API, which is really only going to appeal to the developer crowd.

As I wrote earlier this year, Play-i is the brainchild of Vikas Gupta, who in his last role was the head of consumer payments at Google; Mikal Greaves, formerly of Frog Design; Saurabh Gupta, who led the iPod software team at Apple from 2006 to 2012; and Imran Khan, previously the head of marketing at E-Loan and Symantec.

The company has raised $1 million in seed funding from Google Ventures, Madrona Venture Group and individual private investors. Gupta said the company wanted to launch the crowdfunding campaign not only for funds, but also to involve customers and solicit feedback from parents and children early on in the process.

“Our focus is definitely on children. We want to build robots that are fun and engaging for them,” he said in an interview.

Just a couple of weeks ago, another buzzed-about startup, the well-funded Anki, announced retail availability for its toy cars that are controlled by iPhone and bring elements of the virtual world of videogames into the physical world. The trick behind Anki, as my colleague Liz Gannes wrote, is “impressive artificial-intelligence software and robotics.”

Play-i’s Gupta feels that less-expensive sensor technology and the widespread adoption of smartphones is making these kinds of robotics more accessible to consumers.

“Now you have a very powerful computing device that fits in the hand of everyone, and you can offload a lot of the computing power from the robot to that device,” he said.

Here’s a video of the robots, so you can get an idea of how they work:

Play-i – Delightful Robots for Children to Program from Play-i on Vimeo.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google