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This 21st-Century Lite-Brite Teaches People How To Code

The DIY programming kit lets you create digital artwork, animations, and games.

Last September, Kano–the DIY computer company–announced it was getting into the gadget game with kits for building your own pixel grids, cameras, and speakers. Now the first of the kits, the pixel grid, is available for sale.

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The grid is a display composed of programmable LEDs. Think of it as a Lite Brite for the 21st century. But instead of physically snapping lights into a box to create prismatic, illuminated images to turn them on, you use code.

“This product is almost the distillation of Kano in 128 pixels,” Alex Klein, the company’s cofounder, tells Co.Design. “It’s an expressive tool, it physicalizes something that was previously abstract and highfalutin, and it’s simple and accessible with an affordable price point.” (When Kano’s Kickstarter launched last fall, the estimated price was $129; now the kit is $79.)

The pixel kit arrives disassembled in a tidy red box. An illustrated step-by-step guide leads you through the foolproof process of snapping everything together. Within just a few minutes you can play games like Snake on the grid, or turn it into a light show. After hooking it up to your computer and accessing the Kano Code application, you can begin programming your own artistic creations, like drawings and animations. Instead of typing lines of code to change the color of the lights or create a drawing, you simply drag and drop blocks that symbolize actions and rules–for instance, which pixels should be illuminated, their color, and how frequently it should turn on and off. “It’s an end-to-end system for learning and making with computing rather than using, downloading, and consuming,” Klein says.

While Kano’s original product became popular with kids, Klein thinks that creative computing isn’t just educational child’s play–he sees mass appeal for the new kits and for the grander mission behind the company.

“Some people call it part of STEM, some call it kid tech–we actually think it’s broader than science, technology, engineering and math, and something broader than kids,” Klein says. “It’s about the outcome of 20 years of design and development of consumer technology with the specific purpose of hiding its workings from an everyday person to make it simple, which had to happen. Now we think there’s something new emerging. People want to be technologically literate citizens. They want to have some control of the world around them. They’re growing increasingly skeptical of the big companies, I think. We’re creating something to give them a look inside.”

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Next, Kano will release production versions of the camera and speaker by the holiday season. Since Kano launched three years ago, the company has sold over 150,000 computer kits to customers in 86 countries. Klein believes that their new products, which are activity oriented, will have even more appeal.

“It’s very tempting to fall into this ‘learn tech . . . or else’ kind of mode,” he says. “For us, it’s more about integrating technology with things people already have an affinity for.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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