Move over, LEGO Mindstorm and K’NEX. There’s a new robot toy in town, and it was created right here in Indiana. The HandiMate robot toolkit is the brainchild of Purdue University Professor of Mechanical Engineering Karthik Ramani, and it could soon be a favorite toy in the average American home. While it’s undeniably great fun for kids, it’s also sparking an interest in technology and engineering that could fan the flame for a future work force able to control similar robots on the production floor of tomorrow’s manufacturing industry.

Unlike conventional kits that require kids to build a robot according to its manual, HandiMate—designed for ages 10 to 15—can be created with any material sitting around the house. And—amazingly—rather than relying on a handheld device to control it, kids operate HandiMate with simple movements of their hand.

HandiMate is actually many wireless “joints” that can bend and move different directions, and using Velcro, kids can attach any material to the joints—think cardboard, plastic containers, or any object sitting around the house. Kids animate the robot by wearing a glove with special sensors. After using a tablet to program a series of movements, HandiMate responds to gestures of the user’s hand to make the corresponding movement.

“A lot of kids have gotten into playing with tablets and smartphones—which has sort of kept us away from engaging in the real world and being spatially engaged,” says Ramani. “When you puppeteer [HandiMate]—when you’re controlling it with your hand—you feel that it’s an extension of yourself. You start feeling the movement, and a lot of engagement is about feeling it.”

Unlike other popular robot kits that favor boys, Ramani made it his mission to create a gender neutral toy, and therefore, engage girls who were previously turned off by the masculinity of mechanical toys. Because the user can design the overall look of the robot using any craft material, girls and boys create HandiMate to be what they want it to be. When they tire of their first creation, the reusable kit can be used again and again by simply taking apart the joints and starting over.

Indiana University School of Education Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences Kylie Peppler is collaborating with Ramani on the project. She says the crafting aspect of HandiMate doesn’t just encourage creativity.

“It actually pushes a lot of that engineering content,” says Peppler. “The larger they create the robot, they have to think about balance and the center of gravity. Or if they add some sort of decorative element on one side, they have to rebalance for it on the other side, and so forth. In this way, we start to see how crafting and engineering are actually tightly entwined.” 

HandiMate’s creators say kids can experience a full playing session with HandiMate in just 90 minutes, a timeframe that makes it ideal not just for the home, but for schools.

“The problem we’ve had is in K-12 schools, we haven’t really made a space for robotics and engineering; a lot of times it’s reserved for afterschool clubs or when you get to college,” says Peppler. “Kids don’t have any visibility into [robotics and computing]—they don’t really understand that these things are made, that they can make them themselves, and the components of which they’re created can be taken apart and recombined again—this kind of ‘Maker’ mentality.” 

While HandiMate is basic enough that kids can control it, Ramani says concepts in engineering, computing and physics are in the background—building blocks that could lead young students to pursue related careers. Ramani believes this is critical in preparing the future work force for the manufacturing industry, which has “reinvented” itself in recent decades with automation, sensors and software.  

“All of these technologies converge in robotics,” says Ramani. “And in terms of controlling these robots, we’ll have some new technology in the future that is going to look like our toy, but more serious play—controlling robots to assemble and to do things with computer vision and so on. That changes the way we think of the factory floor and the way we create and assemble things in the future.” 

Through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization, California-based ZeroUI Inc. has purchased an exclusive licensing agreement for HandiMate. The company plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the coming months to commercialize the robot kit. Ramani views it as an opportunity for “the little guys” to impact the toy industry, typically dominated by “the Hasbros and Mattels of the world.”

But mostly, his mission is focused on the “mechanics” of making robotics fun for kids. 

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