Have you ever seen a robot in real life? Did you ever wonder what it means to actually walk on your own or even dance? If you observe toddlers, you know what I mean, but it is almost as amazing to experience a little robot doing this. Fortunately for us, our third Devoxx4Kids Wiesbaden Workshop provided the perfect opportunity to find out. Before we could see robots in action, though, our own little NAO had quite an adventure. You might ask, “What (or who) is NAO?” Let me explain what Devoxx4Kids is all about, before I tell you his story.
During the past few years, I have regularly visited a developer’s conference called “Devoxx” – the name comes from the voice (Vox) of developers (Dev). Devoxx takes place in Antwerp, Belgium, every year and hosts more than 3,500 visitors. The idea behind the conference is that participants learn something new and are inspired to try out what they’ve learned at home. But, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have something similar for kids? This is how the Devoxx for Kids (Devoxx4Kids) came to be. Devoxx4Kids is a very special day, where kids can learn fun stuff about electronics, robotics and programming.
I started Devoxx4Kids for two main reasons. Firstly, I wanted to give my own son, Jonas, and other kids in the area the chance to look behind the scenes of robotics and computer programming. Secondly, I was particularly fascinated by the unique robot NAO, which was developed to teach robotics to non-professionals and which I could never buy for myself.
At AOE, we have professional communities for a range of topics, where dedicated colleagues organize many different events. Therefore, I asked my colleagues if anyone was interested in organizing a Devoxx4Kids event. In April 2016, we launched the first workshop with the help of more than 20 people!
One of the main features of the Devoxx4Kids is that kids have strong support during their workshops. Therefore, there is a mentor for every two kids as well as enough hardware to allow them to work intensively with the topic at hand.
Another aim of our team is that everything the kids do at the event they can easily continue at home, which means that the software should be free and robot or electronics hardware should be affordable for the parents. Therefore, NAO was out of focus the first year for two reasons. Firstly, one NAO costs approximately 8,500 EUR, which is far from being affordable. Secondly, which is even worse, we needed several NAOs for the event itself.
Still, the idea kept nagging at me because I thought experiencing a “real” robot in action must be a fantastic experience for a child. To make my dream come true, I spoke with Nicolas Rigaud from Softbank Robotics (the company that manufactures NAO), whom I had earlier met at the Devoxx. I also knew he was already involved with the Devoxx4Kids. To my surprise, he even offered to travel from Paris to Wiesbaden. On the same day, Daniel De Luca, who is the worldwide manager of the Devoxx4Kids initiative, also offered to come from Antwerp (Belgium) to Wiesbaden.
Unfortunately, Nicolas left Softbank shortly afterwards, so we were left with only two robots for ten kids, which is not enough – so help was needed. To my surprise, we received support from Cleverbridge in Cologne, one of AOE’s clients, who also have a NAO. This was very fortunate for the kids and us, as Cleverbridge agreed to let us borrow NAO for our workshop.
One of the agreements was that I would personally carry NAO from Cologne to Wiesbaden to make sure the expensive robot travelled safely. Therefore, NAO travelled all the way to Wiesbaden and my son and I had the opportunity to spend quite some time with him. This also allowed us to train the mentors thoroughly for the event.
Shortly before the Devoxx4Kids Wiesbaden Workshop, however, NAO broke one of his thumbs, which had to be repaired immediately. The bad news was that NAO could only be fixed in Paris: Being an expensive robot, he needed to be transported with care and insured, which cost a fortune. NAO left Wiesbaden and arrived in Paris one day later.
After one week, I checked with the NAO repair support to ask when the robot could be returned and the answer was: “he never arrived”. Suddenly, the robot was supposedly lost. The shipment company said they had delivered the robot, even providing us with the signed shipment receipt, but nobody knew where NAO was. This was probably one of the worst nights I have had in the recent past: A robot, borrowed from a client, with a broken thumb – and now possibly stolen.
Fortunately, NAO was found two days later at Softbank Robotics – he had arrived, but someone had put him aside because they didn’t know what to do with him. Thankfully, NAO was repaired the same day and sent back to Germany – but not to AOE. A few days later, Cleverbridge contacted us and told me that NAO was now back in Cologne, as Softbank had returned him to the owner. Arghhh! Again, we had to arrange a way to get NAO to Wiesbaden. Thankfully, Cleverbridge agreed to send him via German postal service.
Overall, NAO travelled some 1,500 km and was on his journey for almost four weeks, while I was worrying about him constantly.
Finally NAO arrived in Wiesbaden. We created his workshop in such a way that the kids could experience a wide variety of capabilities that he has. Hence, the kids learned how NAO could be programmed:
Finally, as a highlight, NAO performed some cool show acts such as dancing Tai chi, where he demonstrates his balancing skills, or a Michael Jackson “Thriller” performance, which is breath-taking, as the little robot does all those great moves for which “Thriller” is famous.
Usually, the workshop ended with some selfies or videos with NAO and the kids, as the kids had so much fun with the little robot and wanted to take some additional memories home with them. Honestly, over the past few weeks, I’ve became so acquainted with “my” little NAO robot that even I felt a bit emotional when I had to bring him back.
The entire Devoxx4Kids Wiesbaden team would like to thank our sponsors AOE, Cleverbridge, NFON and //SEIBERT/MEDIA, as well as Daniel De Luca, for making this terrific Devoxx4Kids day possible. The kids and mentors had a wonderful time with the three workshops:
Special thanks goes to Softbank Robotics for their timely repair of our NAO and for manufacturing really cool robots!