Sony's Koov is a candy-colored coding course for kids

sony-and-039;s-koov-is-a-candycolored-coding-course-for-kids photo 1 Kris Naudus / Engadget

STEM skills are in high demand right now, making toys that teach science and engineering popular with parents hoping to give their kids a leg up in the job market. Products like Hasbro's new robot that teaches coding have joined kits like Lego Mindstorms on store shelves. Now Sony is making its own plunge into STEM education with the Koov robotics kit, with its decades of design experience being put to work in the hopes of training the next generation of engineers.

Gallery: Sony Koov Connected Brick Kit | 16 Photos

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Koov has a lot in common with Lego Mindstorms: Both are building sets that revolve around taking a "core" processing unit and attaching motors, sensors and non-connected colored blocks to it, with the assembled robot programmed via an app. But Koov blocks are more cube-like, each piece designed around sets of four boxes reminiscent of Tetris. The proprietary design isn't just about being different, however. It means fewer pieces to manufacture and makes it easier for users to take an idea they have and envision it as pixel art.

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Those are just the standard "dumb" blocks, however. The core unit, motors and battery are solid white to stand out, and shaped to accommodate their switches and ports. One thoughtful touch Sony added was the ability to separate the core processor and the battery pack. This means users don't always have to design their projects around a huge central unit.

Budding programmers can choose the starter kit, which gives kids some basic lights and sensors to use. Or they can get the advanced set, which steps things up a bit by adding gears, wheels and an accelerometer to the mix. All of the pieces connect via pegs, which are a bit difficult to pull apart. No worries -- Sony also included a block separator.

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While very well designed, on a hardware level there's nothing particularly special here. STEM products like LittleBits' new Code Kit also focus on giving kids basic colorful components to put together simple games or robots. But those sets are also happy to just let kids jump in, essentially saying "Here's some pieces, here's a few examples of what you could do, now build something." This is fine for the more adventurous types, but what about aspiring builders who may feel intimidated by the amount of options and work?

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The Koov app for iPad, Windows and Mac takes a slower, more measured approach. Instead of asking users to just hop in, it takes small steps -- the first mission is actually called "What is coding?" And, while this may be frustrating to kids itching to build something, Sony wants Koov users to be cognizant of every step of the process. The instructions for each project include short animations showing where pieces go, and the 3D models can be rotated for a better look at how they're put together. Subsequent lessons walk users through how to use the motors, how to program lights and even how to properly balance their robots so they don't topple over.

Gallery: Sony Koov app | 13 Photos

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The code is just as easy to assemble as the physical blocks. In the coding screen of the app, commands are represented by colorful pieces that users can push together like a puzzle. The corresponding code is printed within each virtual block so kids can still see how it works and gain some practical knowledge that can be applied for coding in the real world.

Gradually Koov's lessons combine skills until kids are using every technique they've learned to build things on their own. Overall, it looks and operates similar to language learning app Duolingo. Both apps focus on creating an overall sense of comfort and fun, with colorful graphics and game-like mechanics that give users a sense of progress. You can also go back at any time should you need a refresher or don't fully understand something. However, unlike Duolingo, Koov doesn't punish you for not logging in every day. (Though, in the future Sony may add some kind of reminder notification.)

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Once kids are familiar with the basics of how everything works, they're ready to start creating their own robot recipes and put them online. The social aspect is a big part of Koov. Users can share pictures and videos of their projects, explain what they did and interact with other users in the comments. All projects will be vetted by an actual person before appearing online, so parents don't have to worry about their children seeing something inappropriate. It also respects the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA), which is required since the target audience starts at age eight. While younger children could give it a try, Sony feels that eight is the sweet spot for students to really understand the concepts without feeling overwhelmed or needing a lot of help from their parents.

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Right now there's not much to look at terms of projects, as the English-language version of Koov won't be available until November. It launched on Indiegogo this week, with kits going for around $300, as a way of gauging interest in the product as well as getting more feedback on what Sony's new Global Education division should do next. This is its first project, but the team got a lot of help from other parts of Sony in the areas of programming, design and manufacturing. Product Marketing Manager Tim McGregor said that Sony considers this an investment in its future. The next generation of designers and builders can be inspired by Koov, and hopefully decide to come work for the company.

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