According to a recent study, 73% of UK kids under five are now using a tablet or mobile device, which is a 46% increase from 2012. And Robotics engineer Anish Mampetta has taken note.
Together with his partners, the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute grad has created a toy that puts digital-addicted toddlers’ penchant for swiping and tapping to good use by inspiring them to build and program their own race car sets. Thanks to the generous financial support from the crowd-funding community, his educational smart toy, Cannybot, has already raised more than triple of its US$40,000 goal on Kickstarter, with 35 days still remaining in the campaign.
Cannybots is designed to teach kids the fundamentals of programming by removing one of the biggest barriers to entry—learning syntax (also known as programming grammar).
“Programming is going to become a very critical part of our day-to-day life. It’s almost becoming a fundamental skill you need to know, like language or math,” says Mampetta.
Cannybots also teaches kids the fundamentals of robotics and 3D printing – two areas that have seen tremendous influence over today’s kids in 2015, as exemplified by Disney’s recent crop of Accelerator program startups. At the most basic level of play, kids ages four to eight can control their bot through opening up an app on a tablet or mobile device and touching arrows on the screen to change its direction. Kids in the six-to 12-range can program their bots to do things like solve a maze or slow down around corners by sending messages to a main board, like chatting on messenger. And for those budding programmers who want to take things one step further, there are more advanced programming levels where the interface opens up and they can try their hand at writing codes themselves.
No matter what level kids are at, a key feature of Cannybots is that kids can print the bot’s chassis from a 3D printer at home, as well as different track formats, which can be downloaded online.
Mampetta first came up with the idea in March 2014 after hearing a friend complaining about how his eight-year-old child had become hooked on tablets. At the time, Mampetta had a one-year-old son himself, and not wanting him to suffer the same fate, set out to find a solution to problem. “I wanted to make a really cool toy robot for my son by the time he was six-years-old,” he says. “Once home 3D printing started coming out, I used it to create toys and the development process went much faster.”
In late 2014, Mampetta and his team took Cannybot to the London Mini Maker Faire, where they met a local teacher who wanted to use their 3D printed toys in his class. The potentially huge educational opportunities for Cannybots became clear, and Mampetta promptly put the word out on social media, particularly on Twitter, and once additional orders started coming in from teachers around the world, he decided to quit his day job as a robotics engineer and go full speed ahead with Cannybot.
After co-founding the company as Cannybots Ltd. with friends Wayne Keenan and Sayi Pavithrasagar, the trio began taking their toys to more classrooms and noticed how much kids engaged with the products. However, not all teachers fully grasped the product’s full value, so Mampetta and co. built a consumer version so that more kids could access the toy at home.
“That’s’ why we launched on Kickstarter,” he says. “We’re really pushing this as a day-to-day toy for kids, and without even realizing it, they will start to learn the fundamentals of technology.”
With the help of a US$250,000 innovation grant from the UK government this past March, the startup company was able to further refine its commercial product—the first prototype was very simple and looked like a matchbox. “We realized if we wanted to go to the consumer segment, it had to look cuter, so the design got more complex over time but we had to make sure it was still 3D-printable at home,” Mampetta says.
Prior to launching on Kickstarter, the newly formed company had sold more than 200 bots to 20-plus schools across the UK, Australia, Norway, Spain, Netherlands, Finland and the US. And seeing as how a strong contingent of their overwhelmingly successful fundraising campaign is coming from teachers, who have scooped up all the educator packs consisting of 10 Cannybot kits and four large track formats for the early bird discounted price of US$830 (US$1,306 at retail), Mampetta believes the company is on the right track.
All early bird Kickstarter backers will have their Cannybot kits by Christmas, and then the rest of the order will be filled by March 2016. Afterwards, the plan is to make the toys available through Amazon (US$119) and then raise private investment funds to take the company, which is also in the market for a global distribution partner, to the next level. Mampetta says that next year different shells will be available for the bots so kids can easily change their shapes.
While there’s been initial interest from the likes of Radio Shack in Mexico and American educational entertainment company LeapFrog, Mampetta says the immediate focus is on developing the core platform rather than trying to sell as soon as possible. Known as CannyTalk, the proprietary interface behind the bots is expected to be the other key revenue stream. The company is currently working on a desktop version of CannyTalk as another way to teach kids the fundamentals of programming. The company would then license the software to schools for an annual fee.
Aside from the obvious need to generate revenue to keep the business afloat, Mampetta reiterates the overriding goal behind creating these toys is to “bring kids out of the darkness and give them a chance to play in the real world. Kids spending time on tablets exclusively as a play device is really concerning,” he adds. “I think it’s up to us to create a solution for that, and I think that’s what we created. I hope parents see value for that.”