Days out diary - child friendly and family activities

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Introduction

This is a review of the Meccanoid G15K personal robot from Meccano. It's a programmable robot that's about 4 feet tall (about the same size as a 6 year old child). The recommended minimum age is 10 which I believe is the age for making it; I'm hoping to use it to teach programming to children younger than that. The Meccanoid has only recently been released for public sale (I pre-ordered through Maplin) so there is not much information beyond the manual at the moment.

As you expect with Meccano there is a lot of assembly required. It took me about 7 hours to make, which I split over 3 days.

Once built it responds to voice commands as shown in the video below:

The Meccanoid is expensive for a toy at around £350 for the 4 ft tall G15KS or £170 for the smaller G15, but if this is educational then it is easier to justify. But does it's educational aspect justify it's high cost? Read on to find out more.

Building the robot

The instructions for building the robot are good. They are easy to follow, but you need to be particularly careful to look at the diagram to ensure you get the parts the correct way around, as it's easy to make a mistake.

There were a couple of issues with the instructions the main being step 32 - where the suggested screw is too short. It states a 12mm (1 inch screw), but I had to swap it for a 14.7mm screw instead. There were some spare 12mm screws, but I had to borrow the two 14.7mm screws from a different set. There is a step later on (step 106) where I think it would be possible to use smaller screws which may be an alternative if you don't have any spare screws. I also noticed another mistake where it showed a screw going into the wrong hole, although it was obvious which hole it should have gone into.

It is possible to assemble on your own, although having another person help will make it easier to put in some of the screws. In my case my 7 year old son was more than happy to help. A useful feature of the supplied spanner is that it can hold the nuts in place which is very useful in some of the tight spots (it took me a little while to work this out).

The only part of the build that is not detailed is where to connect and route the cables. Fortunately this was fairly obvious as due to the lengths of the cables it became evident that some of the motors needed to be daisy-chained.

There is no need to connect the Meccanoid robot to a computer, unless you want to change the language. But if you do want to change the language (I changed the language from US English to UK English) then the software is for Windows and MAC OSX only, there is no Linux version. There is a supplied USB cable, but it is very short; fortunately you only need to do that once so it's not an issue.

Voice recognition for robot instructions

To command the robot you first say it's name (default is Meccanoid) and then give it a command. Unfortunately the voice recognition is not very reliable. I expect this is due to different accents, but with such a limited vocabulary I would have expected it to be a bit more reliable than it is. For example whilst it always hears its name and recognizes some commands very well (such as Tell me a joke), it struggles with shorer words such as Dance and sometimes gets the commands wrong such as going forwards when I want it to go in reverse.

To record the video I deliberately chose instructions that it usually works with.

Construction

The Meccanoid robot is primarily made out of polycarbonate pieces. This is a change from the standard Meccano which uses metal (which is probably not strong enough), but stronger than the Meccano junior sets which use a more flexible plastic.

The pieces and screws are based on the same hole spacing and thread size as the other Meccano products. This is based on imperial measurements and whitworth reflecting Meccano's British history (although Meccano is now French, owned by Spin Master which is Canadian). I think there would have been a good case for using the change in materials to change to a more universal metric based system which would have made it more compatible with other generic parts, although I expect that wouldn't have gone down well with existing Meccano fans. It does have the advantage that it is 100% compatible with existing Meccano (hence the reason I could borrow screws from another Meccano set).

The parts do feel to be fairly sturdy although when built it does feel a little fragile. I think it would take a reasonable amount of handling but wouldn't want to put it to the test. I think I will need to supervise children fairly closely with it..

As I was writing this a screw has fallen out, but I don't know where it's from. Perhaps it wasn't tightened up properly when we assembled him.

At the moment there are only instructions to build the humanoid shape robot which is supplied in a printed manual. The promotional video also shows it reconfigured as a dinosaur, but there are no instructions for that at the moment either in the manual or available online.

Programming toy - via LIM and Mobile Phone / Tablet

The Meccanoid robot will follow spoken instructions or follow a LIM (Learned Intelligent Movement) commands which are "programmed" by moving the joints when in learning mode. The LIM mode is good to create simple movement sequences, but it's not really what I would call programming.

The Meccanoid robot can also be controlled using a smart phone or tablet using bluetooth. Android and IOS are apps are available from the usual App stores. The mobile phone options include Ragdoll mode which is easy to use, or Motion Capture using a phone camera to mimic your movements. When I first tried the motion capture it rebooted my phone which I now realise is due to the top bracket from pushing against the power and volume control buttons on the phone. Whilst I did get motion capture to detect me eventually (not fully pushing the bracket down) I found it to be unreliable. I think this may depend upon the mobile phone, size and distractions in the room, and lighting, but I didn't really get it to work very well using that mode.

Real programming

As a toy the Meccanoid is great fun, but what I really wanted it for is to teach programming. I hope to be able to create code that will communicate via bluetooth with the robot. In particular I'd like to be able to control this using a Raspberry Pi computer. This would provide a platform for children learning programming, which I think would help to make programming more enjoyable.

My expectation is based upon the statement that this is to encourage open source programming and that "Communication protocols will be made openly available on our website". So far there is no more information on the website, but I hope that they will add that information soon. I have sent Meccano an email asking for more details of the bluetooth protocols and I will post details as I progress.

Summary

At the moment the robot is great fun and really cool, but at the moment it is just a toy. As such the £350 price is very high.

I do expect that the communication protocols will be released in future and that will greatly increase the programming options available. I'm looking at writing software to support this when the details are known. At that point I expect this will be a great tool for teaching programming to children and then the cost will be justified.