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Apple’s kid-friendly coding app can now bring toys to life

In 2014, Apple introduced a programming language called Swift that made waves in the developer community — not just for its power and flexibility, but for how easy it is to learn. So easy, in fact, that Apple believes it could be anyone’s first programming language. That’s why it went ahead and created Swift Playgrounds, a free iPad app designed to teach kids how to code. Now, a year after its release, Apple is ready to step up its educational repertoire further. With the June 5th release of Swift Playgrounds 1.5, Apple’s app will now teach kids to program robots and drones as well.

What this means is that kids will be able to program and control a variety of Bluetooth-enabled robots and toys right within the Swift Playgrounds app. So instead of just tapping around on a touchscreen to move virtual characters, kids can write snippets of Swift code and translate them to physical robot actions. At launch, Swift Playgrounds 1.5 will be compatible with the following third-party toys: Lego Mindstorms Education EV3, Sphero SPRK+ robotic ball, Parrot’s Mambo, Rolling Spider and Airborne mini-drones, UBTECH’s Jimu Robot MeeBot Kit, Wonder Workshop’s Dash robot and Skoog, a tactile cube speaker. It bears mentioning that there are already several toys out there that aims to teach code to kids, but Apple’s solution is one of a few — if not the only one — that uses genuine programming language instead of just block-based code.

Apple demonstrated several of these Swift Playground programs to a small group of reporters in its Cupertino office right along with the Bluetooth-enabled toys. A Lego spokesperson showed us how you could use Playgrounds to basically create anything from a robot turtle to a robot dinosaur simply by applying certain bits of code to specific motors and sensors. Hit "Run" and voilà, the robot will come to life, walking along or wagging its tail according to what you’ve programmed. The initial game that comes with the Lego EV3 kit is called Animal Rescue, where you’re tasked with, well, rescuing animals from danger.

Next is the Sphero SPRK+, a robotic ball that lights up, accelerates, turns and rolls around on command. With Playgrounds, you can change its color and program it to recognize your feet and other obstacles. A Sphero spokesperson even showed us a Sphero Arcade application, which allows you to program the ball and use it to play a game of Pong with a friend. When asked if Sphero was planning on introducing even more Swift Playgrounds apps, a spokesperson hinted that one for the adorable BB-8 could be coming in the future, which would certainly please any kid who’s a Star Wars fan.

By far the most exciting demonstration was with Parrot’s mini-drones. Using a simple Parrot Education tutorial on Swift Playgrounds, kids can essentially learn how to pilot drones through code; they’ll learn all about pitch, yaw and roll and get the drones to perform a variety of tricks. Kids can also learn how to control the drone with the iPad itself; tilting the iPad will prompt the drone to go up, while giving it a quick shake will prompt it to flip over.

Last but not least, Apple showed off how UBTECH’s Jimu Robot could be programmed to walk and dance in a variety of ways (our favorite was probably "Gangnam Style").

Of course, Swift Playgrounds is not all fun and play. Through learning how to program these toys, kids are learning actual Swift code — the same language that’s used in more than a quarter-million iOS apps. "They’re learning the real language," said Tim Triemstra, Apple’s product manager for Swift Playgrounds. "It’s not block programming [like you’d find on other kid’s coding toys]. It’s real code from day one."

Over the past year, Apple has been spreading the gospel of Swift Playgrounds to the developer community and those in education. Indeed, it partnered with educators to come up with Swift Playgrounds teaching guides and curricula, which are already in use in schools across the country. And, apparently, it’s pretty popular. So popular that Apple has already expanded its Swift coursework all the way through junior colleges.

"Coding is part of what makes the really cool things in the world, really cool," said Kelly Croy, a teacher from Oak Harbor Middle School in Washington state, who was brought in by Apple to meet with the press. "For kids to use the same real language, and interact with robots in the physical world — it’s a game-changer." That Swift Playgrounds is on an iPad rather than a computer is also pretty important, according to Croy. "They can go outside; they’re not sitting around a desk or a computer screen all day."

It was this level of engagement that inspired the team at Apple to collaborate with these toymakers. The iPad is already much more accessible than a computer, but adding robots to the mix makes it that much more exciting. "It combines coding with robotics and the physical world," said Cheryl Thomas, VP of engineering for Swift Playgrounds. "You’ll see how engaging it all is."

"Education is in our DNA," said Susan Prescott, Apple’s VP of product marketing for apps, markets and services. "Coding is an area where we could make a positive impact. It’s an exciting step forward in education."

"It’s really important to us to figure out how technology can transform teaching and learning," continued Prescott. "We take it very seriously."