Thursday, 29 June 2017

ROBOTERRA Origin Robotics Kit Review


ROBOTERRA is a robotics kit for children (with parental supervision), teens and beginners. It uses a custom RoboCore board and components with powder-coated metal parts.

ROBOTERRA is very much a kit that you can build lots of different robots and machines from. It comes with a curriculum of 20 different projects. It uses nuts and bolts and there's lots of physical construction involved as well as coding.


Unboxing

ROBOTERRA is beautifully boxed in several 5 colour-coded cardboard boxes stacked in an outer box. We really love the compact and organised storage.



Inside the boxes there are small plastic containers and molded storage inserted which keep everything in its place and encourage proper storage after use.


Getting Started

It's actually not immediately obvious what to do to get started. We found the url in a leaflet at the bottom of the THINK box. When you get to that page it's a general info page and the download links are at the bottom. At this point we didn't know that we would need to download anything so we weren't sure what we were looking for.



Once we found the download link and ran the installed we were greeted with a friendly robot face and a modern interface. You do need to create an account to get started. There are no drivers to install. 

We later found that there's a get started page which is more what we were expecting to find. 

Note that what gets downloaded isn't actually an installer, it's just an executable. This confused us when we went to run the software a second time. There wasn't a desktop icon or a start menu entry. On one of our machines a start menu search didn't find it either. Dragging the downloaded file to the Desktop or creating a shortcut fixes this. (Having an executable is useful for school environments where installation can be problematic.)

CastleRock

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CastleRock is a modern offline editor. It uses C++ which is commonly used in industry. This means that right from the start beginners are working with some cumbersome syntax and terminology. They are given starter code to work with though which makes it much easier to get started. 

The editor is nicely laid out with instructions on the left, code editor in the middle and a monitor showing the CastleRock board on the right. 

My detail-oriented son noticed that while the instructions say "Click the run button at the top right corner of the code editor", the button is actually labelled 'upload'. It didn't stop him knowing what to do though. 

"Mum look, I like that, it says congratulations, you did it."

The instructions include animations which show where to connect components which is a really nice touch. 

The three core wires are referred to as Poka-Yoke, a term that my son, unsurprisingly hadn't come across. It's a Japanese term meaning 'mistake proof' which is used to refer to items that are designed so that they can only be connected the correct way. We like this concept a lot! 

The tutorial ends really abruptly. You connect a component (a button) but don't actually do anything with it (it does show up in the monitor.) This was a bit confusing. 

After completing the tutorial we were offered the chance to create our own project or work through a guided project. We chose a guided project. We had a bit of trouble navigating the interface to find get to a new project but got there in the end.  

It's really refreshing to see a modern editor with tutorials and a monitor included in a really usable way. It would be easy to take this feature for granted but we've used a lot of beginner editors and this one stands out.


Trying a Project

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My son tried the first project, the motorcycle. In hindsight this was a mistake! This is just a construction project to get used to working with nuts and bolts and doesn't actually have any code which was rather a disappointment for him, we thought there would be pre-written code. It might be just the right thing for a child with less experience that needs practice with construction before taking on the additional complexity of working with electronics.

The projects make use of animated 3D models which you can rotate to see the project from different angles. This is really useful for seeing how things connect together. 

My son found it hard to find the right components for the projects. The tutorial uses different words to the labels on the boxes (bolt vs screw and spacer vs washer) and (small vs 12mm etc.) It would be really helpful if the tutorial used the names on the boxes. 

The words are also separate from the pictures so it's hard to know what the parts are. It would really help if the 'slide bar' was labelled as such. You can fill in the gaps, especially if you rotate the diagrams around. My son also got confused when the picture showed a standoff that wasn't mentioned in the instructions for that step. 

These are minor issues that could easily be addressed and aren't important once you've worked everything out, but they did slow my son down a bit initially. 

After spending an hour building the motorcycle my son was baffled to find that there's no code for the project despite it including an LED. I guess the project is intended to get kids used to building. But building is quite time-consuming, it would be nice to have a pay off. 

A couple of hours in to using the kit and we haven't even lit up an LED yet. 

At this point we found another project that uses an LED, the Lighthouse, and used the code for that to make the LED flash on the motorcycle. That's better!



Curriculum


The curriculum covers a lot of ground from initial projects where kids use pre-written code through to projects that require coding skills and teach more advanced robotics concepts. 

We really like the range of projects, there's lots of variety including everyday gadgets and interesting contraptions. 

The project descriptions could definitely be improved. The lamp description suggests that reading in poor light is a cause of having to wear glasses. This is a myth for which there's no evidence. 


Age Recommendations

ROBOTERRA have taken the approach of saying that the kit is suitable for a wide range of ages and that it's their expertise and interest level that matters. They recommend the kit for age 7 and up with parental supervision for under 13s. This makes a lot of sense to us.

Kids who are keen on technology and in a supported environment are often ready to use products earlier than the age at which whole class use in schools is appropriate. We're big fans of parents and children learning together too. 

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Verdict

The ROBOTERRA Origin Robotics Kit is a great option for learners who are serious about robotics. The hardware is good quality and working with it develops useful skills. The extensive curriculum makes it a good choice for home educators, clubs and classrooms. It's also a good choice for a family learning experience. There's plenty of scope for going from beginner to fairly advanced in one kit. 

There are cheaper robotics kits and custom options available but they tend to have less guidance on what to actually do and are better suited to maker families with plenty of tech expertise available to guide kids. 

We'd recommend looking through the list of projects before diving in. You'll have a better experience if you understand what the projects do and can pick one at the right level. If I had done this first then I would have guided my son to jump to a more advanced project as he has experience with construction and coding. 

We do feel that there's room for improvement in the project instructions (the actual projects are fantastic) and would expect this to improve in future. 

We should highlight that there's lots of construction involved in using ROBOTERRA. We think this is a good thing as it's an area where many modern kids lack skills. 

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