With open-source platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi widely available, we’re in a golden age of DIY computer building. But the learning curve for building anything without a step-by-step guide is too steep for most adults, let alone children.
littleBits is one of the best companies out there for making customizable computer creations accessible for a wide audience. And the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit makes learning the inputs and outputs of computing remarkably fun by giving kids (and adults) the chance to build an R2-D2 robot by hand.
The R2-D2 droid has been out since September 2017, but littleBits just announced a major update for the kit, allowing Artoo owners to customize, code and program their droids through Google and MIT’s co-developed Scratch Books code platform this April.
At the 2018 New York Toy Fair, we got our hands on the updated bot and app, and checked out some of the droid’s newest modifications and capabilities.
Price and availability
The updated version with coding and programming enabled launches in April, but current owners will get the exact same update to their companion app, so there’s no need to wait.
Design and build
The box comes with six bits — a control hub, motor, power source, proximity sensor, servo and wires, along with 20 plastic pieces that make up the R2-D2 plastic shell. You need an iOS or Android device to download the free app, which provides all of the instructions for building it.
Building R2-D2 will take some time for your kids to get through, but the app takes them step-by-step so nothing goes wrong. Plus, there iconic John Williams music playing to keep the mood up. Younger builders will likely need help putting Artoo’s plastic shell together.
The kit pieces are magnetized and slot together very easily, and the pieces are color-coded to help kids differentiate between types, like input or output.
At littleBits’ Toy Fair booth, a representative showed me pieces from one of the new “Hall of Fame” kits. In just a few seconds, she had shown me how to slot a few bits together and produce an output sound. You or your kids will need a manual, but connecting pieces together is a breeze.
Once your R2-D2 droid is built, you have several options for controlling it: joystick or tilt controls through your smartphone, self navigation mode, specific body part controls like head spinning or arm waving, or 'Force Mode,' which uses the proximity sensor to push Artoo away from your hand.
While you can move littleBits’ R2-D2 in any direction forwards or backwards, its movement definitely isn’t as fast or maneuverable as the Sphero R2-D2 droid, which comes pre-built. littleBits’ is lighter and more likely to get knocked over, or come apart if someone has too much fun with it. But the companion app gives littleBits’ droid automated movement options that Sphero's version lacks.
Sphero’s droid also comes pre-painted in vivid film-style colors, while littleBits’ droid has a plastic, see-through exterior that doesn’t block your view of the bits inside. The droid does come with pre-made stickers for you to add once the pieces are put together, but this unpolished, DIY style might be a disappointment to some buyers looking for a perfect R2-D2 clone.
But we thought of it more as a blank canvas, an opportunity to give your droid a personal signature. You need only check out their Droid Inventor Kit Competition site to see how much joy kids get out of tech that you can paint or glue stuff onto.
That same principle applies to adults and advanced coders as well. Your droid can be built to incorporate new pieces, bits, and computers, with limitless potential and some truly cool results. littleBits’ Projects and Competition pages show people coding their R2 units to act as security guards, dispense candy via voice activated commands, and even talk to you using a connected Arduino.
Some users might feel intimidated to try these sorts of projects, which go way beyond what the free app shows you how to do and require some searching and following online guides. Others might balk at the fact that most of these projects require bits not in the Droid Inventor Kit bundle, and mostly retail in the $199 – $299 range (about £140 – £215 / AU$250 – AU$380).
What it’s like to use
At the littleBits Toy Fair installation, we tried out the new Scratch Blocks interface to drive R2-D2 around the booth.
The primary options are fairly straightforward. You can place Artoo in Drive mode and remote control the bot directly, which is certainly fun. But with Blocks, I could program and trigger a particular set of actions. I made the droid scoot forward, twist its head around, and make a grumpy noise, all in order.
Then we were shown some of the other options available. We could time the programmed actions for specific moments, or make them happen as a reaction to something else. A representative mentioned that Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic studio used this functionality to make their security robot scream and scoot around in response to movement (though they did this before littleBits publicly released the code to do so). This bot also featured spinning hair buns.
We can imagine having Artoo putter around and make random noises would get old after a while for kids, once the excitement of building the kit wears off. But these customization coding options add the potential for hours more of entertaining learning, and helped us to understand some of the coding logic that goes into these sorts of hand-built modular systems in just a brief amount of time.
For now, you have the un-updated app, which provides you with a detailed step-by-step walkthrough of how to build your droid. People who enjoy the challenge of building things will love how straightforward and painless it makes building the Star Wars droid.
Others might be disappointed that the “missions” are tutorials, not game-like challenges to send your robot on — although there is an obstacle course. There are 16 total, and once you’re finished with them, the app doesn’t have much more for you to do except drive the droid around. The April update will add six more missions along with the new programming features.
If you or your kids haven’t tried any connected robot kits before, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than the Droid Inventor Kit.
Compared to other kits and bots, littleBits’ droid is much more enjoyable to set up than the Anki Cozmo and its instructions are much less daunting than the Ubtech Jimu TankBot Kit. It’s less speedy than Sphero models, but your family will get much more long-lasting enjoyment out of a bot you built and designed yourself.
The app is fairly limited beyond helping you build Artoo, but the April update will make it even more enjoyable to tinker with. If you’re okay with resources not being based in the app, littleBits also has plenty of projects and friendly competitions that will encourage your kids to keep inventing and experimenting.
It’s just disappointing that so many great bits you might need for coding projects come in other kits. But for $99.95 / £99.95, you more than get your money’s worth.