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Circuit Breaker

Kano's Pixel Kit is a fun way to learn how to code, but it needs to crash less

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Coding with Kano's Pixel Kit

How to code a virtual birthday cake.

Posted by Circuit Breaker on Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I spent some time recently with Kano's Pixel Kit, a successful Kickstarter project from the same people who made that Kano computer for kids. The $79.99 Pixel Kit is basically a low-resolution display, composed of 128 super-bright color LEDs, but it's powered by a built-in computer you can program from your desktop of choice. It also has a microphone, tilt sensor, joystick, and two input buttons.

In the true spirit of Kano, you assemble it yourself, but it's just snapping a few plastic parts together, so nothing very advanced. Where the learning begins is when you plug it in to your computer over USB and launch the Kano app. It's one of those drag-and-drop coding interface, similar to what kids use in Hour of Code. I'll be honest: I usually hate these puzzle piece coding environments, but this one was really good. You can easily click a tab to see the actual JavaScript you're generating, which is honestly more readable to me than colored blocks, and could potentially be a way for kids to transition over to text programming when they're ready.

To add functionality to your coding project, you introduce "parts" like a microphone or a rectangle or an animation. There are even internet-connected parts (the Pixel Kit has Wi-Fi). These are basically like the concept of "classes" in programming, and they bring along methods you can compose with the basic built-in code blocks like math, variables, and per-pixel lightboard control.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to program a birthday cake for myself as a joke. I quickly cobbled together something that worked perfectly on my computer — blow on the microphone to make the candle flame pixels disappear — but when I loaded it onto the Pixel Kit, it wasn't interactive. I double-checked the JavaScript, and everything looked perfect. I finally gave up and actually did some of Kano's tutorials, which were wonderful. I ended up using a method very similar to one of Kano's tutorials, where I just covered over the flames with microphone-sensitive black rectangle. For whatever reason, that version worked when I loaded it onto the Pixel Kit.

There were a huge number of crashes of the Pixel Kit throughout my experience, and it wasn't just my own programs that seemed to be a problem. The Kit has built-in games, like Snake, and other built-in functions like a light show, and sometimes it would crash when I'd try to browse through these apps. But when I turned it off and on again, everything worked fine.

Overall, I'm really impressed with Kano. The company put a weird hardware project on Kickstarter, shipped it, and has a great programming environment to support it. Once a few more bugs are ironed out, I would recommend Pixel Kit to anyone interested in coding. By making your code respond to analog inputs like a microphone and a tilt sensor, and output to such vibrant LEDs, your code ends up feeling a lot more tangible and "productive." Which, as someone who is bad at programming but keeps trying, is a real rarity in the coding journey.