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Apple’s Swift Playgrounds coding app now supports robots, drones, and toys

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LEGO, Sphero, and Parrot are onboard

You can make UBTECH’s Jimu robot dance using Apple’s Swift programming language and its Swing Playgrounds coding app.
Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Apple today announced that its education programming iPad app, Swift Playgrounds, will soon support robots and drones. That means young kids and students will be able to write their own Swift code to control any number of real-world toys and machines. The company is launching the feature next Monday, partnering with a number of top toy and robotics companies including LEGO, automated BB-8 toy maker Sphero, and drone company Parrot. Other companies on board for the launch are toy robot makers UBTECH and Wonder Workshop, as well as Skoog, the maker of a music cube that relies on Swift code to teach children how to compose songs.

Swift Playgrounds, launched last year during Apple’s 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference, is effectively a video game that teaches kids how to code using Apple’s Swift programming language. It breaks down how code functions at the most fundamental level and uses colorful environments and visual guides — product manager Tim Triemstra even uses the game industry term “cutscenes” — to explain the effects of code and the power of programming. The code appears on the left side of the iPad screen, either automated by the app to teach a lesson or typed in directly by the user, while an animation the code can manipulate plays out on the right.

Since the Playgrounds launch, Apple has partnered with a number of educational institutions around the country to get Swift built into introductory computer science curriculums and to make its Playgrounds app a fixture in classrooms. The company says Playgrounds has amassed 1 million unique users since launch. “When we were designing Swift, from the very first days we wanted it to be everyone’s first programming language,” Triemstra says. “We wanted it to be approachable.”

Now, with a significant number of Playground users and Swift picking up steam as a lightweight and more elegant way to build iOS apps, Apple is trying to expand its educational focus from software to hardware. Because Playgrounds will support all manner of robotics, including flying drones, the company hopes it will give young kids a whole new reason to engage with programming and learn the secrets of code. It could also do wonders for the popularity of Swift among the next generation of coders, and help cement the language as a fixture for young and eager roboticists.

Given the popularity of success of the Mindstorms robotics series, it’s a no-brainer that Apple got LEGO onboard for Playgrounds. In a demo at the iPhone maker’s Cupertino office, a LEGO representative broke down exactly how a Mindstorms EV3 kit can work with Playgrounds, connecting any number of robot-controlling modules to an iPad via Bluetooth. From there, you can see real-time data provided by the robots’ actuators, motors, and sensors, as well as program commands for fleshed out LEGO bots to receive and carry out. In preparation for the partnership, LEGO says it’s also designed 10 hours of lessons specifically for the Playgrounds app for kids to run through with a Mindstorms kit.

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Similarly, Sphero’s transparent SPRK+ orb, which is already used to teach kids elements of robotics and programming, will work with the app. Kids will be able to program movements and games for the orb, with exercises breaking down the step-by-step process of development, including a real-world Pong game they can play with their feet as the paddles and the SPRK+ as the ball.

French drone maker Parrot is also buying into Apple’s new Playgrounds initiative, adding support for its Mambo, Rolling Spider, and Airborne drones. In another demo at Apple’s offices, a Parrot representative showed off how the Playgrounds app can be used to input commands for the drones to turn, flip in midair, and land in the palm of a user’s hand.

Apple stresses that none of these new features and hardware tie-ins for Playground are dependent on brand new or tie-in hardware. With LEGO, all you need is a Mindstorms EV3 kit, released as far back as 2013. The same goes for Sphero’s SPRK+ and Parrot’s trio of drones — so long as you have the supported product, it will sync with Playgrounds and allow you to start controlling it with your own code.