Of Purple Cows and Orange Robots
Brenton O’Brien, CEO of robotics manufacturer Microbric, has been developing robots for use by teachers and hobbyists (with moderate success, he says modestly) for the last ten years. Realising that his latest technological child, Edison the Robot needed a helping hand to get it to market, O’Brien applied Seth Godin’s Purple Cow approach. It worked, and the response to his Kickstarter campaign was overwhelming.
Purple cows are remarkable, which means they are likely to be remarked on. O’Brien needed to a way to make Edison remarkable and to get people remarking on him, so the first thing he did was change his colour from grey (boring!) to bright orange. More remarkable is Edison’s full LEGO (the market leader in educational robotics) compatibility, and the fact that at $39 he costs less than 10% of the price of a LEGO robot, making him a no-brainer for schools wanting to incorporate robotics into their STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject education. Thus helped by a purple cow did a bright orange robot grow up to be the robot king of the classroom.
Educating with Edison
Edison, as you might guess, is named after Thomas, the inventor of the light-bulb and much else besides (Tesla might grumble, but he has his name on other cool stuff). O’Brien wanted a compelling name that would capture the imagination of anyone interested in learning robotics. “We brainstormed many functional names, such as ‘BrickBot’, but wanted something much more evocative. Our thought path went something like: Robotics – Learning – Education – Invention – Edison,” he said.
As O‘Brien points out, the great thing about using robots as an educational resource is that they inspire and excite students. “They become highly engaged with solving practical problems and learn not only programming, but also science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and they do this without even knowing it,” he said.
Therefore, while the children are playing with robots, it isn’t just about robots or programming or learning STEM subjects.
“It’s about rolling all of these disciplines together, just as it happens in the workplace. I’ve never had an employer that has asked me to work on solving math problems for 40 minutes and then write a completely unrelated report for the next 40 minutes and so on. Robotics offers the ability for a number of specialty subject teachers to work together and create an integrated learning environment where students carry their robot from class to class,” explained O’Brien.
“But most importantly, the students receive instant feedback on whether they have solved a problem or not. You can learn a great deal from success, but you learn even more from failure, and robotics teaches students that failure is an acceptable path to success. Learning this concept as an engineer is great, but as an entrepreneur it’s GOLD!”
I + Robot = …
And, it’s not just the education market Microbric is thinking about.
O’Brien is optimistic about the widespread application of his technologies in the near future, “Robotics is going to be huge! Even with robot vacuum cleaners and educational robots like Edison being readily available the industry is very much in its infancy. After all, who wouldn’t want a robot that cleans the toilet and mows the lawn!”
For all that optimism, O’Brien is nonetheless realistic about the future of human/robot relations.
“Sci-fi movies have been portraying robots integrating with humans for decades, so people think ‘Hey, robots are really smart’, but they’re not. Robots simply execute a program that someone wrote that allows them to make very basic decisions. We humans can be quite simple at times and get very attached to inanimate objects. I watched the movie Her a few weeks ago and really liked it. But, computing power and software intelligence must increase a lot to get to that point. Apple’s Siri has a long way to go before I will seriously consider using it, never mind falling in love with it!,” O’Brien said.