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March 28: Architecture Professor and Student Create Robot Building Blocks for Children


Eric Sloss                           

Architecture Professor and Student Create
Set of Robot Building Blocks for Children

PITTSBURGH—Mark Gross, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture, and Eric Schweikardt, a Ph.D. candidate, are putting a high-tech spin on building blocks for children. Gross and Schweikardt have designed "roBlocks," small, magnetic robot-blocks that children can plug together to form complex robots. The robots' behavior changes based on how the children assemble the roBlocks.  
RoBlocks "When you build with roBlocks, you think in terms of how local actions combine to produce a global effect — which is how the world actually works," Gross said. "By playing with roBlocks, kids gain a new and powerful — and computational — way of thinking about the world."
The 19 roBlocks are magnetic and can be attached to other roBlocks. There are four categories of blocks: sensor, actuator, logic and utility. The five sensor blocks detect light, sound, touch, motion and distance. The actuator blocks respond to the stimuli the sensor blocks detect by creating motion, light or sound. The five logic blocks — And, Or, Not, Nand and Xor — allow children to refine the manner in which their robots respond to stimuli. Utility blocks provide power.
Children can experiment and create dozens of different robots. They can combine the blocks and determine the robot's behavior by trial and error, or they can figure out the logic blocks and use them to construct a specific robot. Children can also use software to reprogram the blocks by adding conditions to the original programming.
"Instead of thinking in terms of a 'top down' design where one brain controls the robot's behavior, kids must think in terms of large-scale effects of many little decisions. And the outcomes can be surprising," Gross said. "That's a really powerful concept, yet we seldom encounter it directly and explicitly. That's what we're aiming at with roBlocks."
Gross and Schweikardt construct each block by hand, but they are recasting the roBlocks for mass production and also expanding the catalogue of available blocks. They plan to supply children's museums with sets of roBlocks and they hope to see sets of roBlocks for sale by December 2008.
Visit for images, research papers and a roBlocks building simulator.