The childhood train set — with tracks that would loop around furniture legs in endless fashion — inspired a generation of would-be conductors.
Now, one start-up hopes to take the concept a giant step forward with Ozobot Evo, a "social robot" that introduces children to principles of science, technology, engineering and math. The device arrives on the scene as toymakers are going full bore with robotics and artificial intelligence that have the dual purpose of being both playthings and instruments of instruction.
The Ozobot Evo is a spherical robot designed to be a introduction to STEM and a fun toy. The Evo is small — tiny enough to sit on an Oreo cookie — and is made entirely for kids. It crams motors, circuits, lights, and sensors into a body that fits into a child's pocket. The toy, which is controlled using a mobile app, will go on sale in November for $99.95.
To make the robot universal and to give it a mind of its own, Ozobot created a language for the toy based on sounds, colors and lights. "We've actually spent a lot of time riffing through what this language is going to sound like," founder and CEO Nader Hamda said in a telephone interview with CNBC.
Embedded LED lights and a small speaker let the Evo click, chirp and flash. Put your hand in front of its path, and the Evo will use its proximity sensors to stop — and flash its lights at you. The robot can even pair with a smartphone to act out "ezojis" — emoticons that trigger a preprogrammed dance and light show similar to how bees communicate.
The Evo uses color sensors on its bottom to follow black lines like a miniature self-driving car. The robot can be directed through color combinations that interrupt the black line: Blue-green-blue, for example, will boost speed, while green-black-red will make the robot turn right at the next fork in the road. The robot is clever enough to avoid some obstacles altogether, and placing a hand behind the bot will increase its speed as it tries to outrun you.
There's a good reason for all these robotic bells and whistles: Evo is designed to teach STEM in the classroom, said Hamda. Students can use it to learn "algorithmic thinking" — a way of solution finding — by designing roads with color-code instructions for the robot to follow.
In classrooms, teachers can override the robots using a smartphone app, and with good reason. "Eighteen robots kind of all screaming at the same time I think we might drive the teacher crazy," Hamda said.
Learning this kind of logical and orderly "algorithmic thinking" can help students get ahead in STEM fields, said Jan Plass, a professor of learning sciences at New York University. "Not everybody is used to thinking that way. In fact, one could argue people who haven't programmed aren't used to thinking that way," he told CNBC.
Ozobot has bigger aspirations for its tiny Evo. The companion smartphone app allows the bots to be controlled like a pint-sized remote-controlled car, and when connected to a computer, the Evo can be programmed. Meanwhile, a micro USB port on the robot's rear currently used for charging, will eventually accept "skins," action figures derived from Marvel Comics' "Avengers." These add-ons will sit on top of the Evo and plug into its USB port, feeding it personality traits that the robot will then execute.
"We want to be able to give the user a new experience every day," Hamda told CNBC.