Startup using wooden racecars, humvees, and Arduino to teach coding

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A SmartWood humvee being assembled. 

Credit: SmartWood

Academix Robotix, a small LA-based outfit targeting robotics education, launched a Kickstarter campaign Wednesday for its SmartWood models of vehicles.

The creations are built from laser-cut plywood and customers assemble the kits at home. "The point is to get away from the 'instant' ready-made toys that just open and go," says Elad Shifman, the engineer on the project, where "there's no imagination there, no creative process."

Accordingly, the SmartWood models also run on Arduino-compatible systems which allow ambitious builders to add gadgets like a camera, gripper arm, or sensors onto each vehicle.

"People just getting into Arduino can take these and build whatever they want," Shifman says. The hope is that these simple kits foster all kinds of fun and creative uses for the vehicles.

Add another page to the Do-It-Yourself movement's handbook and another node on the ever-growing Internet of Things.

As the cost of electronics plummets and open source code (and support) spreads across the web, curious builders increasingly create their own gadgets and devices at home. Large enterprises are as well, and optimistic predictions abound on how far connected devices will spread. 

There's also a burgeoning "learn to code" movement, but for newbies to the inner workings of computers, it's difficult to know where to start in a field as vast as programming.

Experienced programmers have cautioned against seeing coding as a sort of job market panacea because the skill sets don't translate to other jobs, like strong reading, writing, and arithmetic might.

"I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing," argued StackExchange founder Jeff Atwood. 

But while people might be better off letting plumbers retrofit their home's piping, they should at least know what to do when the toilet overflows.

Projects like SmartWood make for gateways into the very basics of development and languages like Java and C. The hope is that gaining those basic skills allows anyone to hack together new ideas.

Arduino microcontrollers are driving a lot of the momentum. 

"Once this technology gets in the hands of everyone -- that's when things get interesting," says Dominic Pajak, a strategist at processor maker ARM.

For youngsters the hope is that the early groundwork will lead to lives with a better understanding of how to tinker with hardware and software -- and maybe a career in programming or IT.

Last December, Kickstarter backers funded Primo, which uses cut-out shapes and colors that, in combination, form a very basic programming logic. Kids guide a wooden robot on wheels towards his home as he executes their commands.

The SmartWood vehicles are controlled with a smartphone app but can also be programmed for autonomous drive.

The way a Roomba patrols a living room looking for dirt, one can now envision SmartWood humvee, equipped with air and soil sensors, patrolling an ambitious maker's yard for the best place to plant tomatoes.

Shifman and Gil Vismonsky made this rather dramatic but funny video dressed as superheros fighting in the name of "Anti-Instant" where they save the world from lazy creations, even taking a subtle shot at Apple because the company's devices can't be re-programmed.

That's where they hope their models will stand out. "It's completely hackable," Shifman says.


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