The Smartest Toy Blocks Ever Made: Cubelets

These little cubes from Modular Robotics make programming so easy, even an eight-year-old can do it.

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Modular Robotics

I first noticed Cubelets when a bizarre commercial featuring a bearded Dutch pitchman started circulating around the Internet. Funny, yes, but the product featured in the ad is actually one of the most interesting and accessible robots on the market today.

Think of Cubelets as robotic building blocks that behave differently depending on how you assemble them, like a simple form of programming where you just snap functions together to get results.

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For example, say you have three Cubelets: one that responds to light, one that drives and one that serves as a battery. Shine a bright light at your creation and it drives towards or away from the light source (depending on how you set it up). Now, switch out the light sensor Cubelet with one that uses infrared sensors to measure distance and you have a robot that moves when you wave your hand at it.

In essence, you have all of the components of a standard robot — sensors, actuators and controllers — pared down to their most basic and easiest to use form. It’s a great way to teach kids about how robots work without actually having to solder or know anything about programming.

Right now, they’re not exactly cheap. A set of six sells for $160. Additional blocks will cost you $25 a piece, including ones that react to heat and serve as speakers.

Still, Cubelets are a lot cheaper than other robots on the market, and they seem more affordable when you think of them as a set for a classroom of 5th or 6th graders. While we in the press often focus on the latest Terminator robot from DARPA, it’s really small robots like these and iRobot’s Roomba that move robots from the lab into regular people’s homes.

Cubelets are the work of Modular Robotics, a recent start-up that was spun off from Carnegie Mellon University with initial funding from private endowments and the National Science Foundation. And this is only the beginning: Modular Robotics is also planning a Cubelet that will be programmable via Bluetooth, either through C or a simple API to access basic behaviors. Worried about the shortage of homegrown engineers in the United States? Maybe Obama should start giving these toys out to young students across the country.

Think of them as gateway drugs into the world of robotics: First, you learn about the basic concept of robotics by connecting Cubelets. Then, using the API, you get a taste of programming. Then you’re hooked, learning C and making your Cubelets do all kinds of things.

Next thing you know, you’re a engineering student at MIT and, boom, high-tech labor shortage over. You’re welcome, America.

MORE: 7 Real, Functional Robots You Can Buy Right Now