Encouraging the next tech smart generation means starting interest early. Meet Marty, the little interactive robot who teaches kids to code.
Fully programmable, WiFi enabled and customisable with 3D printed parts, owners can build him from a kit in an evening and then set about using a range of software accessed by their own browser to introduce character and skills.
I wanted one that kids could engage with, I wanted to make something that looks like a robot should look like, that moves around and has this character that kids can engage with more easily.Sandy Enoch
Used to its full potential, Marty ticks many skills boxes, including programming, electronics and mechanical engineering.
Marty is the creation of Dr Alexander (Sandy) Enoch.
He said: “It might start with simple things like getting Marty to shake hands or getting around obstacles, to a recent workshop we held with Edinburgh University students when they added a camera to Marty so he could detect a ball and kick it.
“Robot football sounds silly,” he adds, “but in the robotics world it’s something people are still working on. There’s a lot to it, strategy, thinking about how to generate the movements. It’s complicated.”
Young coders can get their hands on a blank canvas (basic) robot with a growing number of software applications – and a few fun accessories which are on the way – for £150.
“There’s a bunch of educational robots out there – every year about five million toy and educational robots are sold,” concedes Dr Enoch. “But Marty is special, the way he works is unique that makes him different from every other robot out there.
“We have tried to make the processes as easy as possible, so children in the late stages of primary school can use it, right up to university level.
“It’s a way to give anyone learning about this stuff a tangible product, so if you are doing coding, it makes the learning experience real. It’s about making learning fun and interesting.”
They could just play around with Marty as they would any remote controlled toy. But Dr Enoch hopes they’ll find it much more fun to get into ‘scratch’ – a global coding language – and create their own unique Marty.
He stands 22cms tall, can manage some nifty dance moves and should he happen to get bored he might tap his foot or give you one of his angry stares.
And when Marty the robot isn’t impressing with his footwork skills, he’s helping to radically change the way children learn about mechanics and computer programming.
For while he may look like another robot toy, behind his owl-like features is the potential to inspire the next generation of savvy tech scientists and coders – a vital component in the digitally driven workplace of the future.
Dr Enoch, who hit on the idea of creating a fun but educational robot that, unlike anything else on the market, put the power to program its moves and develop its character into its young owners’ hands.
“Marty started out as a project during my Phd,” explains Dr Enoch. “I’d spent a few years researching walking robots. Then when I was looking at educational toys for my niece and saw what was out there. I suppose as a robot scientist, my standards were quite high!
“I found a lot of different toys but they quickly ran out of things you can do with them. A lot were novelties, others were very expensive and difficult to use.
“I wanted one that kids could engage with, I wanted to make something that looks like a robot should look like, that moves around and has this character that kids can engage with more easily.”
Marty was one of the stars at the Scottish Pavilion at this year’s Mobile World Conference, which took place in Barcelona in February, as part of a delegation from Scottish Development International.
A successful £90,000 crowdfunding campaign recently boosted by £285,000 seed funding from investors which include Gareth Williams (Skyscanner) and David Lane (Edinburgh Centre for Robotics), plus orders coming from around the world, means Marty is now well on the way to giving young coders a head start in a new career landscape.
And with Scotland’s digital sector showing strong signs of growth, and Scottish Government forecasts suggesting 12,800 jobs will be created year on year, Marty could well play a vital role in ensuring today’s youth become the backbone of tomorrow’s tech industry.
Little wonder that Marty has been hailed as one of the UK's most exciting technological spin-outs, and has earned Dr Enoch the backing of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which helped him found Robotical, the company behind Marty.
With sales coming in from around the world – including an order for 40 from an Australian school – and growing links between Robotical and Scottish schools, hopes are growing that Marty’s influence can inspire and enthuse children, as well as help showcase Scotland as a home for bright tech ideas.
The Scottish Government has placed innovation at the top of the agenda, with proposals to help manufacturing, energy and financial technology sectors take advantage of this ‘fourth industrial revolution’, additional support for graduate entrepreneurs and extra research and development support from £22 million to £37 million per year over three years.
With Robotical’s staff now standing at five full-time and one part-time – and an ongoing search for a developer to help drive forward Marty’s next phase, Dr Enoch agrees that there’s a need to ensure tomorrow’s workforce can meet the needs of the jobs market.
“Of course not everyone in the future will be an engineer or scientist,” he adds, but with the world around us becoming more mechanical and more automated, it’s important for everyone to understand how it works so they’re not lost in a sea of technology. “
Find out more about the technology sector in Scotland and other innovative companies like Robotical