Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

You may have noticed that we’re out of stock on almost everything. If you’re looking around on the site and you can’t order what you need, I’m sorry! All of the tiny robots will be back in stock soon and we’re thinking that the holiday rush has subsided and that we’ll be able to build a little inventory shortly. Just as I’m typing this, in fact, a few MOSS kits are coming off the assembly line and getting put back in stock on the site. Cubelets on Friday.

We weren’t able to manufacture as many robots as we had hoped to this year. We had to decline quite a few orders from our resellers to make sure that we had enough kits in stock for people to order on modrobotics.com, and we had to put off a relationship with two big electronics stores until next year because we just couldn’t build the sheer volume of tiny robots that they needed. We left money on the table, so to speak, and that missed opportunity hurts.

Modbot can stand the pain. Manufacturing our own products here in Boulder is hard and we’ve pushed through a lot of challenges (oh, say, bad raw materials, broken industrial machines, surprise tolerance stack craziness, plastic parts seizures by Customs, for example) that might not have presented themselves if we just had a Chinese contract manufacturer make our stuff for us like everyone else does. I’d rather we were in this position than in the opposite position of having made a lot of stuff that nobody wants to buy.

Our whole mission revolves around broad impact. Modular Robotics is all about enabling as many people as possible to experience designing with complex systems and emergence (by playing with tiny robots) as possible. And so, while we regret not being able to manufacture (and sell) as many robots as we might have been able to, I’m pleased to note that we did, in fact, make and distribute 5x as many robots as we did in 2013. And we had a lot of fun doing it! Thanks for making modbot possible.

Invent Calendar
Seasons’ Greetings,  budding inventors!

The holidays are upon us once again.  Snowmen, candy-canes, advent calendars, and little lights abound. And we’d like introduce you to something new.  This holiday season, celebrate the spirit of inquiry and invention with our Invent Calendar!

Every day, we’ll be sharing an exciting bit of intellectual wonder. Follow Modular Robotics on Facebook and Twitter to discover daily challenges, robot builds, videos and curiosity-driven activities.

Mark your calendars and check in to see what’s behind the doors of the Modular Robotics Invent Calendar!

Woo!  I’m pleased to announce the new Battery Cubelet.  We’ve been working on designing and developing it for quite a while.  The new Battery Cubelet has a lithium polymer battery with micro USB charging, so you no longer have to remove the cells from the Cubelet to charge it like with the old version.

The new Battery Cubelet lasts about 30% longer than the old one and it charges more quickly too.  Turns out it’s also a lot easier for us to manufacture: we generate fewer scrapped and wasted parts with the new design than with the old.

Back in 2010 when we launched the old Battery Cubelet, most of the little robots made their way to science centers, children’s museums, and schools where they were often in use for all-day sessions.  We chose to make the battery cells removable so that these places could buy a bunch of extra cells to keep Cubelets going for a huge day instead of having to buy a bunch of extra Battery Cubelets.  It turned out, though, that swapping batteries in and out of Cubelets was just straight annoying and the chargers were clunky to use and slow.

One of the more unique aspects of Cubelets is that it’s a distributed system.  When you build a typical robot, you build a plastic and metal body, and then you switch your attention to a laptop and program the brain.  With Cubelets, you snap together a bunch of little brain modules that all work together and form a body.  If you’re OK with carrying the metaphor a little further, Cubelets most certainly do have a heart: every robot needs a Battery Cubelet to provide power — without it, a construction is dead.  That’s why this upgrade is such a big deal.

The new Battery Cubelet is available now on it’s own, as part of the SIX kit, and as part of the big TWENTY kit.  Psyched!  We didn’t launch many new Cubelets this year, but the new Battery Cubelet is a big one.

If you think programming with Scratch is only for kids and non-programmers, please open your mind for a minute. Here at Modbot HQ our MOSS Scratch plugin is the goto tool for prototyping new robot behaviors–even though we’ve got a bunch of hardcore programmers.

Why?

Simply because it leverages 100% of the capabilities of MOSS behavior in a package that facilitates real time iteration and experimentation – just like physical MOSS itself.

For example, we’re working on designing creatures for our next specialty artist kit of MOSS. This crazy snake-like one needed a synchronized motion pattern for the two pivot blocks in order to move at all. Starting with the sine wave generator example project included with MOSS Scratch we added a second channel and phase lag parameters in a few minutes.  Immediately we had a robot writhing on the table and could quickly tweak the amplitudes, offsets, phase lags, and physical MOSS configuration to achieve optimal locomotion and turning.

ScratchUltraSineIf we pursue this robot design the next level of development would also happen in Scratch.  We’d boil down all these optimal parameters to a simple forward/back/left/right interface tied to arrow keys and drive around for a while!  Only then would we finally transfer into textual coding, either into firmware via MOSS Flash or a dedicated mobile control app to distribute the behavior when a kit ships.

Have you ever wanted XRay goggles?

As we’ve put MOSS into the hands of our Kickstarter backers, early adopters, and educational pilot programs we’ve heard several times that visualizing power and data flowing through a MOSS construction can be tough starting out. No longer. We’ve equipped every robot in the MOSS robot recipes with a beta XRay view!

JungleView JungleXray

Check out the live Braitenbird page here. Green is power, and orange is data, just like in the new “How to Build” Guide. The bubbles move along the tubes to show how everything flows.  We hope that everyone who touches a MOSS kit makes the jump from following instructions to inventing their own unique MOSS bots. Seeing how our example bots are connected inside will be a handy stepping stone to MOSS building proficiency.

By the way, we didn’t just program in the circuits for two dozen robots. We programmed a system so that your web browser understands MOSS, how it works, and how it all connects. Feel free to let your imagination run wild at the possibilities…

 

 

 

We’re finishing up the final preparations toward launching our most awesome product ever: the MOSS Huck Tank. I can’t wait until November.

The Huck Tank is the first in the MOSS Artist Series and is designed by Huck Gee.  I’ve been in love with Huck’s work ever since seeing the first toys he did with Kidrobot, and I’m super-proud (and still slightly amazed) that he agreed to design a MOSS kit.

The Huck Tank kit has 32 MOSS blocks and is designed to be assembled into a little tank that drives around and shoots things with foam darts.  This is a janky hand-painted prototype, but just look at it!

MOSS Huck Gee Tank

There are two different ways to play with the tank.  In autonomous mode, it’ll drive around and avoid obstacles, firing its dart whenever it hears a double clap.  Or, download the iOS/Android app and remote control the tank and turret.  Of course, you can also build anything you want, or mix and match the Huck Tank modules with your normal MOSS modules to create huge foam dart shooting monster robots.

The white plastic frames that give shape to normal MOSS blocks are injection moulded at one of our suppliers in China.  We’ve never been able to injection mould plastic parts in the USA; it’s just always been too expensive.  Way too expensive, like we’d need to charge $100 more for a kit expensive.  But things have changed: we’re manufacturing the plastic parts that are new in the Huck Tank at an injection moulder in the USA!  In Colorado!  The supplier is pretty awesome.  They’re building the moulds out of aircraft aluminum instead of tool steel, and they should last plenty long.  Easier machining in aluminum makes for USA moulds at a competitive (yes, it’s still more expensive, but not double or 10x) price to Chinese manufacturing.  Cool.

We offered the Huck Tank as a reward tier on our Kickstarter campaign from six months ago.  We’ve shipped out 80% of the MOSS kits from the kickstarter, and the remaining 20% are Huck Tank backers.  I’m sorry we’re later than we estimated in the crowdfunding campaign!  We expect to ship Huck Tanks in late October 2014, and I’m confident the wait will be worth it.

Remember when you were a kid and someone would ask you, at the beginning of school, to write an essay or introduce yourself by talking about what you did over your summer vacation? I used to try and prepare (because I’m a huge dork) and draft it in my head before I returned to school. So, here, a quick PRE-cap of MOD BOT Edu’s summer vacation.

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I’m writing this post from Atlanta, a land of endless fried vegetables and phenomenally good jazz and brass band music. We’re here for the ISTE 2014 conference. We’ve met some inspiring educators and innovators here, and it’s been great to have our booth on the Exhibition floor as well as have the team giving four presentations during the conference.  We’re so excited to have so many chances to connect with educators, give them a chance to try Cubelets and MOSS, and share ideas.

After this I head to Dallas where I’ll be co-managing a really cool and out-of the-box collaboration between our company and the Frontiers of Flight museum. This is big, everyone – while MOSS has been out in the world, this is the first time we’ll be using it for structured education and I’m thrilled to pilot it in a new camp that we are jointly offering with this museum on engineering, robotics, and space! As a bonus, while I’m in Dallas, I’m doing a Radio Disney interview about robots, education, and what we’re doing. I also get to work with with Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s Leaders in Science Teachers, and their Family Discovery day on July 12th.

Then I jet off to Chicago where colleague Donald Ness and I will be talking about how playing with robots can lead to computational thinking and learning about code at CSTA’s 2014 conference.

Once I’m back, I’m slated to be at RAFT Colorado’s Summer Symposium for teacher training, and then doing a full-day teacher STEM experience with robots at Xsci.

It’s a full dance card for Mod Bot Edu, but we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share our results and work directly with a wider group of awesome and inquisitive educators. We have our eye on a few new places to be and be seen in 2015 so don’t be surprised if you see us hitting the road again then!

 

Do you know how you can tell when a company gets a new marketing person?

They get a new website. A couple weeks ago Modular Robotics retired our trusty old site for a new one. With the launch of our new fanciness, comes my cue to introduce… myself. I’m Stu, Modular Robotics Marketing Dude and robot evangelist. Don’t panic, I’m not here to convert you to the Church of Robotology. I’m here because I seek to advance the memetic concept of robots and their impact on us as a species.

moss-robot-chess

My goal at Modular Robotics is to convince the world that robots are a necessary component to our advancement as a species.

Naturally, you might be wondering if I’ve been sniffing too many solder fumes to posit such a hypothesis. The reality is that I spend my days pushing pixels rather than completing circuits. Occasionally, I get out from the glow of my Macbook and meet real people in the realm of the third dimension. After the initial shock of human contact wears off, I often find myself answering this question… “What are these robots for?”

If you’ve stumbled across this post… you should know that Modular Robotics makes robot constructions systems that are deceptively educational. By this, I mean our robot toys are a lot of fun and have some great life skills embedded into the play experience. Normally, I answer this question with something akin to “Modular Robotics makes robot construction systems that are designed to help kids understand the entangled nature of our world. Our systems are built to be fun and educational, so kids can develop an intuitive understanding of complex systems and design concepts.”

All of that is true, but it neglects to impart the vision of what I hope we can accomplish with Modular Robotics. I do what I do because I believe that these robot toys are the opening move in a game of chess that could result in humanity reaching fantastic new heights. I believe robots are a keystone technology in the progression of our species that will free up time necessary to solve our greatest challenges and provide the mechanisms we need to someday reach distant worlds.

This is a big concept and I don’t expect that this post will have swayed you in the slightest. It will take series of posts to discuss in detail. This post is to introduce myself and give you a peek into one of the many reasons why we do what we do at Modular Robotics.

Every once in a while we talk to a teacher who needs to double check that Modular Robotics lesson plans, activities, and curricula are free.  “Wait, you mean I can just download all of this stuff and use it in my classroom for free?”  Indeed.  We make our money selling tiny robots; it never actually occurred to us to charge for the other materials that make up our Education program.  Free material is one thing, now we’re trying to make this stuff more free.

One of our international education resellers recently asked us if they could print out some of our activities and lesson plans, put their logo on the front, and use that as a special bonus to try and sell more Cubelets.  A couple of us thought it was a weird request, a couple of us saw no problem with it.  Discussion ensued.

Modular Robotics’ mission is to make the world a better place with thousands of tiny robots.  Implicit in that is the notion that we want to have a really broad impact, that we want to enable as many kids as possible to use our robots to get a little smarter about the world.  It seems to us like the distribution strategy around all of these materials should be one of openness, encouraging, and remixing, not one of restriction.

We figured that adopting a license would be the best idea for these materials so that the terms are out in the open.  Instead of copyright, I’m proud to announce that all of Modular Robotics’ education materials like lesson plans, teacher training videos, curricula about complexity, engineering units and all future materials will be published with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

CC BY-SA

The CC BY-SA license is the same one used by Wikipedia.  It means that you can use, remix, and modify the modbot education materials, and you can even sell the works that you create.  But anything that you do end up creating that derives from this stuff must also carry this same license, and you have to give credit to Modular Robotics for the initial work.  Remix!