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Google “Project Bloks” education kit starts with RPi Zero

Jun 27, 2016 — by Eric Brown — 1,511 views

Google’s “Project Bloks” education platform is built around a Raspberry Pi Zero that controls baseboards that talk to “Puck” inputs via a capacitive sensor.

Google announced a Project Bloks hacker platform for kids, developed with IDEO and Paulo Blikstein of Stanford University. A prototype has been built based on the Linux-driven Raspberry Pi Zero SBC, and now Google is seeking researchers, developers, and designers who are interested in using the technology “to build physical coding experiences.” Later this year, Google will conduct a remote research study with the help of these partners.

Photos of Project Bloks researchers
(click images to enlarge; source: Google)

The platform is inspired by tangible programming research from Seymour Papert and Radia Perlman (LOGO and TORTIS), among others, and aims to be the hardware equivalent of Google’s Blockly visual programming tool. Google lists these and other projects that inspired Bloks, including LEGO’s Mindstorms.

Projects Bloks is built around a Brain Board, which is in turn based on the Raspberry Pi Zero and its 1GHz ARM11 CPU. The device adds WiFi, Bluetooth, and a built-in speaker to the Pi Zero’s core features.

Project Bloks Brain Board top and bottom views
(click image to enlarge)

The Brain Board can communicate with a wide variety of WiFi- or Bluetooth-enabled devices, but it’s principally designed to physically connect to and power a series of Base Boards. These square devices, which are equipped with haptic motors and LEDs, can be organized into “different configurations to create different programming flows and experiences,” says Google. The Base Boards can be arranged horizontally, vertically, or in grids.

Project Bloks Baseboard top and bottom views
(click image to enlarge)

The third group of components are called Pucks, which can represent things like switches, dials, faders, or buttons. They have no active electronic components and can be easily constructed out of a variety of materials. When you place a Puck on a Base Board, the two can communicate via a capacitive sensor. You can program the pucks to generate different instructions, such as turn on or off, move in a certain direction, jump, or play music.

Project Bloks Pucks
(click image to enlarge)

Each puck contains a capacitive signature that identifies the action to be executed on the device. “The most basic (‘static’) pucks can have flat or 3D graphics imprinted on them, such as stickers or a physical icon,” states the the Project Bloks technology site. “It’s also possible to create more complex (‘dynamic’) pucks that have mechanical controls like faders, a push button, or rotary dials — those include a magnet on the mechanical control.”

Another view of the Brain Board and Base Board
(click image to enlarge)

IDEO has contributed a Coding Kit that teaches basic concepts of programming “by allowing them to put code bricks together to create a set of instructions that can be sent to control connected toys and devices. These include tablets, drawing robots, or educational tools like LEGO Education’s WeDo 2.0, says Google.

Developers will be able to use these hardware and software tools to build various educational kits. Examples include a Sensor Lab that lets you map inputs to outputs to perform tasks such as switching a light on if the temperature drops. A Music Maker kit lets you input different instruments, and then layer and loop sounds. A Coding Kit can let you control a robot to perform tasks such as creating art.

Project Bloks components are said to enable “all sorts of different physical programming experiences”
(click image to enlarge)

The project is still in active development. However, in its whitepaper Google says that “In the future, for example, we could freely provide all the hardware specifications online, complete with design files so all parts can be made or 3D printed anywhere. “

Introducing Project Bloks

Developing on Project Bloks

Further information

The Google Bloks project is inviting researchers, educators, and developers to sign up to join the project and participate remotely in a research project later this year. More information may be found in this Google Research Blog announcement, as well as the Project Bloks website. There’s also a Project Bloks Position Paper [PDF].

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3 responses to “Google “Project Bloks” education kit starts with RPi Zero”

  1. Ronald Mourant says:

    Children do not need this sugar-coated Bloks stuff. Programming in Python would be much better.

    • chip says:

      Agreed. The Pi Zero also is still very hard to get without paying twice its cost for shipping or bundles with stuff most of us don’t need. This is clearly a commercial choice from Google.
      There are much powerful alternatives around; A NanoPi M1 outperforms the Zero in just about everything and still costs less than an Arduino.

  2. tachyon1 says:

    First, a quick correction. The Pi Zero runs at 1GHz, not 700MHz.

    As to Ronald Mourant’s ridiculous comment. EVERY programmer should start with a visual programming tool. There’s a reason that in the past, CS classes all used Flowcharting Templates to design their code flow before doing any actual coding. This visual flow association makes use of the brains visual learning systems to make a stronger connection between the functional code blocks and the actual flow of those functions. People that learn this way learn faster and end up with a greater understanding of the code and the programming language applied to it. Most ‘real’ professional programmers still do some form of flowcharting during their early design process before they start entering any actual code as it helps them think through the program’s design and logical flow before wasting time coding themselves into a logical corner by trying to just wing it and design on the fly.

    People that are just “thrown in the deep-end” as Ronald suggests either quit in frustration, or end up being hacks who make the kind of code other people have to fix.

    Today, visual programming systems like Scratch, Blocks, Visual Logic, Flowgorithm, App Inventor, Toon Talk, and others are important first steps in learning to code and they and many other visual programming systems are used daily in academic environments because of the importance of connecting a programming language’s code with its logical flow concepts.

    To throw out nonsense like “just use Python” does a disservice to anyone with an honest desire to learn programming properly.

    Choosing a particular language, be it Python or otherwise, is a last step in the learning to code process and should be a decision based on suitability to each coding task, not any particular language bias.

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