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First steps with a tiny robot

PIXIE, Programmable desktop robot, Pounds 99.95 +VAT, Swallow Systems, 134 Cock Lane, High Wycombe, Bucks HP 13 7EA.

My school has had the PIP and Roamer floor turtles (from Swallow Systems and Valiant Technology resepctively) for about five years now and many pupils have been enthralled as they explore turtling on the floor. Teachers, too, have enthused over the merits of these floor robots, regarding them as useful tools for exploring space concepts and providing the basics of computer programming.

However enthusiastic they appear, though, most teachers will agree that the problem with these robots is lack of classroom space and, in the case of younger children at least, the complicated keypads: two shortcomings neatly circumvented by Pixie.

Pixie is the first floor robot small enough to be suitable for table-top use. Its diminutive dimensions (110mm x 94mm x 63mm) and simplicity offer new possibilities for teachers who will welcome the fact that you can assign a small group of children a table-top activity involving a programmable toy.

Pixie is also simple. With only seven buttons, there are few reception or Year 1 children who will experience any difficulty.

In place of numeric values, with Pixie you simply press the forward or backward buttons once for every multiple of its length. Thus "forward 3 x Pixie's length" requires just three presses of the forward button and "Go", and that's it. Apart from forwardbackward keys, there is a CM (clear memory), which needs to be pressed before any new program of key presses is entered, right and left turn keys, a Time (pause) key and a Go key to run the sequence.

Pixie runs from rechargeable batteries that should provide a day's classroom use and which require charging each evening. The unit uses DC motors, which means that they will eventually wear out but as these are very cheap items, replacement costs will be low.

Pixie circumvents the problems of PIP or Roamer when it comes to carpeted floors. Although on most smooth table tops or laminated plastic surfaces it will turn an accurate right angle, there may be occasions when you need to adjust the amount of turn to compensate for friction. This can only be done when Pixie is plugged into its charger. A teacher's "password" of key-presses permits the angle of turn, pause time and distance travelled to be altered from their defaults of 90 degrees, one second and one Pixie-length respectively.

What Swallow Systems has done is take the "how much" out of control, reducing complexity of tasks.

Children I tested it on (five to 11-year-olds), all took to it immediately and achieved success very quickly. They tried one game where Pixie has to be programmed to visit coloured squares and another where Pixie has to spell out words by visiting letter squares. Such activities lend themselves to Pixie.

Pixie travels at the same speed as PIP. This means that relative to its size, it is actually completing program steps in half the time it would take PIP or Roamer.

But what happens when it falls off? So far, Pixie has fallen off the table four times without any noticeable damage or loss of efficiency. As an introduction to control, Pixie is second to none.

Swallow Systems - stand 274

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