The art of programming without code
Conventional wisdom holds that it’s easier to learn something when you’re young, be that tennis, a new language, or, indeed, software development. It’s against this backdrop that London-based Kano has been selling a range of DIY computing kits designed to teach coding fundamentals and the building blocks of PCs.
A few months back, Kano launched a DIY touchscreen computer kit to help anyone — but especially kids — learn to code. The company followed that up by raising $28 million to push its kits to thousands of North American retailers.
Though anyone can learn from the kits, children represent a core target market for Kano. This is evidenced by Kano’s Harry Potter Coding Kit, which was announced earlier this year. VentureBeat managed to spend a little time with the kit, alongside a bona fide six-year-old, to see how she coped with the pressures of building a connected wand and then putting it to work in the fantasy world inhabited by Potter & Co.
While Kano’s DIY touchscreen computer kit wasn’t exactly complicated to set up, the Harry Potter Coding Kit trumps it on simplicity — there are just four main parts that need to be assembled.
You have the main wand tip; the handle; the “coding wand brain,” which can also be referred to as the circuit board; and a small button. There is also a lanyard that attaches to the wand so you can tether it to the wrist of overly zealous kiddies. Oh, and two AAA batteries are included.
The little assembly guide that comes with the wand is easy to follow, even for a six-year-old.
You will need the separate Kano Code app to properly interact with the wand. Though setting it up isn’t hard, you will probably need to help younger kids connect the wand to the device over Bluetooth.
Before kicking things off for real, you’re invited to test the wand and practice your swishing by tracing a bunch of colors across the screen. This demonstrates that the accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer are all working for accurate detection of direction and motion.
Next, it’s time to enter the virtual world of Harry Potter. Here, you’ll be greeted by more than 70 challenges plotted on a map. You work through these incrementally, unlocking stages as you go along, with exercises getting progressively more challenging.
I would recommend sitting with younger kids through the first few challenges, at least. I got a little complacent after the first one and just left the kid to it, but when I was called upon to help with one of the challenges a little later, I was out the loop, so to speak, so we had to backtrack a bit.
The challenges vary in scope, but the layout is consistent. It basically constitutes a block-based visual language, along the same lines as Scratch, with users dragging jigsaw-like rectangles from the left, per the instructions at the top, and fitting them into other blocks to form a sequence of commands.
In this example, the challenge is simply to change the color of the potion in the cauldron. You can change it to a specific color — or random colors — by tapping and selecting options from the drop-down menu inside each block.
The changes can be actioned by swiping your wand upwards, downwards, left, or right, and you see will the cauldron sway in various directions, depending on your choices.
Other example challenges include making feathers fly using swishing motions, and making owls move.
As noted previously, things do get incrementally more intricate. For example, you can include multiple “while” loops and create fireworks in the sky that are different colors depending on whether you swipe up or down. You can also change the position of the fireworks in the sky.
Interestingly (and importantly) you can even code the wand itself by stipulating what color the little LED light on it turns while the wand is moving.
This two-way interaction helps create a bridge between the physical and virtual worlds and demonstrates that coding isn’t purely about controlling digital assets on a screen — it can have a tangible effect on real objects.
That said, the LED is positioned at the lower end of the wand, and it’s so small and subtle that it’s hard to get all that excited about it. A slightly larger bulb positioned at the tip of the wand would have created a more engaging experience — but that would probably have had an adverse impact on battery life. Speaking of which …
At the time of writing, we’ve yet to make it all the way to the end of the challenges — such is the nature of working with a six-year-old. After first picking it up, she played with the wand and the various challenges happily for an hour. But then she didn’t pick it up again for a couple of weeks. It was at this point I started paying attention to the battery life of the wand — the two AAA batteries were dead.
Indeed, it transpires that the wand has no “off” button — it merely goes into standby mode, where it is capable of staying for 200-300 hours. If you want to preserve your batteries, you will need to physically remove them from the wand, which isn’t ideal. Moreover, AAA batteries feel like a throwback to a bygone era — it would’ve been better to fit the wand with a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
According to Kano, you should get around six hours of continuous usage from the wand before you have to switch batteries.
Trying to explain what coding is to a six-year-old is a largely futile endeavor — in my experience, at least. But a main purpose of the Kano Harry Potter Wand is to teach the basics of coding to kids who may not realize that’s what they’re doing.
It’s a little like the original Karate Kid movie. Mr. Miyagi persuaded Daniel LaRusso to paint fences and wax cars, and while Miyagi did enjoy some free domestic labor from the endeavors, LaRusso was simultaneously honing his karate skills without even realizing it.
Translated into the world of Kano: As far as kids are concerned, all they’re doing is following instructions so their cool little wand thing can make colorful fireworks or float feathers. With a bit of perseverance, kids will learn all about variables, logic, loops, and the cause and effect of their actions. And, ultimately, that’s what is cool about the Harry Potter Coding Kit — users can enjoy coding without even knowing what coding really is.