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Google And Ideo Are Building A Coding Platform—For Kids

Teaching kids to code is a familiar idea. Giving them access to the entire Internet of Things, as Project Bloks will, is new.

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These days, everyone's saying that it's important for kids to learn to code—and, in turn, it feels like every company is coming up with its own proprietary systems to do so.

Now here comes Google, late to the party in some respects. It's not bringing much new to the table, except for the one thing that counts: the clout to establish a truly universal tangible coding platform for kids.

It's called Project Bloks. It follows a Montessori-style approach, in the belief that playful discovery is the best way to teach kids anything. Building blocks have long been used as a great tool for teaching kids everything from animals to the alphabet, and Google is applying the same principle to teach computational logic (Ideo is developing the experience design). In Project Bloks, physical blocks representing different code commands click together with what's called a central "brainboard" to command objects in the Internet of Things, whether a toy robot or something more sophisticated, like an entertainment center.

"At Google, our view is that kids should be creators of technology, not just its consumers," says Project Bloks project lead Jayme Goldstein. "We believe that behind coding is a fundamental skill set—computational thinking—which is just as fundamental for problem solving as reading, arithmetic, and writing." Project Bloks is a way to teach kids computational thinking, regardless of whether they actually grow up to be software engineers.

In abstract, Project Bloks is not all that different from other solutions that aim to make learning to code as simple as Lego.

But while those are products in their own right, Project Bloks wants to be a platform. The distinction is that anyone, or any company, can build their own contributions to Project Bloks, by releasing different kinds of blocks that add new kinds of functionality to the platform, or by making their IoT-compatible gadget capable of being controlled over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth by a Project Bloks "brainboard," or controller.

"When we started thinking about Project Bloks, we really asked ourselves what Google could bring to the party," Goldstein says, acknowledging the sheer number of coding platforms for kids on the market today. What Google realized, he says, is that while many of these platforms were excellent, they all lacked interoperability.

That's why Project Bloks aims to lower the bar to entry for both IoT interoperability and infrastructure. Google will provide the spec, and the design of the controllers; you just make your game, app, or product compatible. That has the potential to vastly simplify the landscape of tangible computing platforms, where kids are taught to code by manipulating physical objects. Google gives a couple examples of what Bloks could be used to create, like a music maker that uses Bloks to mix tracks broadcast over a Bluetooth speaker, or a robot that draws on a piece of paper according to the instructions it gets from Bloks.

Moreover, new efforts to launch tangible computing products are extraordinarily cost-heavy. "Everyone spends all their money and time working on technical infrastructure, as opposed to their product's experience design, which is where their real passion is."

Right now, though, Project Bloks is still in the research phase. Although the platform boasts a human-centric industrial design spec authored by Ideo, which makes coding as easy as snapping together some colorful magnetic blocks, Goldstein says they're not ready for retail. Instead, the team wants to spend the summer talking to potential partners, refining the design, and hearing from the community before Bloks is pushed as a standard.

So maybe Project Blocks won't be the one API that binds together all the wanna-code playkits on the market today. But the idea of a standard, and a platform, feels necessary. And there's no one with Google's clout or Ideo's experience trying anything like this right now.

[All Photos: via Google]

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