Every tech and toy company, from Apple to Hasbro, has an educational coding offering these days. Sony’s Koov kit has been kicking around Japan for a while now, and should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s spent time with Lego’s educational initiatives — it’s a set of blocks, sensors, motors and actuators that pair with a mobile app. Now Sony is ready to bring the kit to the U.S. — albeit in a pretty measured way.
The company is the latest tech giant to use a crowdfunding platform to test the waters. In this case, Sony will essentially be using Indiegogo to gauge customer interest and hopefully gain some insight into the U.S. market as it works to shape the product for a new region. On the face of it, it’s a bit of an odd move from a company with global reach that has never been afraid to launch into a new category with guns blazing.
Sony certainly has the resources to do so here, but for one thing, the market is still a little shaky. There are plenty of different kits aimed at teaching kids to code and build robots. Apple recently partnered with a handful of hardware makers to help teach its Swift programming language to youngsters, and Lego’s new Boost line joins a number of others already produced by the company. And then there are the dozens of startups fighting for a piece of the pie. How much of that pie there actually is to go around is still a pretty open question.
Koov is also the first hardware product out of Sony’s Global Education wing, a department a company rep told me is “almost like a startup within Sony,” which implies a certain sense of autonomy and probably goes a ways toward explaining the cautious approach. It really wants to get its first product right, and it’s certainly put a lot of thought into the hardware and software side of things.
The kit’s currency is little, brightly colored translucent blocks. The company likens them to three-dimensional pixels, which is an attempt to make the transition between the mobile app and the real world product easier to understand. Kids can use the app to build 23 different pre-determined designs or “Robot Recipes” with the 302 block Advanced Kit. Of course, the sky is the limit if they think outside the box.
To appease those who blaze their own paths, there’s Robot Recipe Sharing, an online database of custom robots built by users. Uploads are vetted by the company for obvious reasons, given the product’s targeted 8 to 14 year old age range. Sony was super-psyched to show me one of the user-built robots created by a Japanese customer that was essentially a version of the company’s hippo that plays custom MIDIs of J-Pop songs. At the moment, it’s really just show and tell, and Sony doesn’t really have a good method for letting users create their own sharable robot building plans. That’s apparently in the works. All part of the aforementioned feedback process, I guess.
There are a few other roadblocks, as well. Price is the biggest red flag. Lego’s new Boost set starts at $160, while Koov’s suggested retail price is $359 for the Starter Kit and $499 for Advanced. That’s a lot of money for a brand that’s entirely untested in this space. Maybe the price will come down as the company scales up, though again, this is Sony we’re talking about here — it’s not exactly a startup with limited supply chain access.
Then there’s the matter of the name. I was actually sorry I asked about that one. Apparently an executive came up with the bright idea to name the system Koov, for reasons that aren’t worth paraphrasing, so I’m going to paste the explanation here in its entirety, because it’s really something:
The logo imagery for KOOV calls to mind the 1’s and 0’s of binary code, or alternatively, “I/O,” the computer terminology for “digital input/output.” The logo is also inspired by the “<” and “>” symbols used in mathematics. In addition, the “K” and “V” that bookend the kits’ name stand for “key” and “value”, important concepts in the realm of computer science. But whereas “key” and “value” ordinarily form a unique, unambiguous pair as applied in computer science, they are connected by “OO” -representing the infinity symbol (∞) -in the logo for KOOV. This is meant to suggest the infinite combinations possible with KOOV, limited only by the imagination. In a multitude of ways, KOOV’s logo is symbolic of its blocks that are a product of the digital age, and that are therefore infinite in potential.
The other issue is one that’s pretty prevalent among these devices. The coding and robotics skills that Koov teaches are pretty abstract. Unlike Apple, whose programs use the coding language used by iOS, macOS, watchOS, tvOS, Sony developed its own language for the toy. It’s built around the Scratch educational programming language, but the end goal here seems to more of building up that initial interest in coding, rather than developing concrete coding skills. Sony’s kit mostly teaches kids to code for Sony’s kit.
The same goes for the hardware, which is powered by a micro-controller based on Arduino. The potential for open-source learning is there, but in its current state, Sony seems to have the system pretty locked down. Perhaps that’s the kind of thing the company will work toward, with the proper feedback through its Indiegogo campaign. At the moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot distinguishing Koov from a million other coding toys.