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3/29/2007
01:50 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Microsoft Research Provides Sneak Preview Of 'Boku' Programming Environment For Kids

A Microsoft researcher on Wednesday demonstrated Boku, an educational game designed to help children as young as five years old exercise their brains by doing programming. Boku is a cute little cartoon robot head with big, soulful eyes who hovers over a cartoon grassy field.

A Microsoft researcher on Wednesday demonstrated Boku, an educational game designed to help children as young as five years old exercise their brains by doing programming. Boku is a cute little cartoon robot head with big, soulful eyes who hovers over a cartoon grassy field.

"We wanted to use every trick in the book and draw kids in and involve them," said Microsoft Research's Matthew MacLaurin.

Kids can program Boku using a graphical language to move around the island, play games, and eat brightly colored fruit. Boku runs on Microsoft Windows and the XBox, and is currently being tested internally.

MacLaurin showed off Boku at the O'Reilly ETech Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. They're planning to move on to test the software with children, and then release it publicly, although they have no timetable.

I shot some pictures of MacLaurin's presentation on the giant display at the front of the meeting room at ETech. This photo's blurry, but you can make out Boku clearly enough. You also can see the hands of the guy sitting in front of me. Our photo editor doesn't need to be afraid for his job.

Kids program Boku by stringing together icons with text labels.

"We're using text. We'd love to be able to do without text, because we want to be able to involve five-year-olds, and only half of them can read," McLaurin said.

MacLaurin demonstrated how Boku could be programmed to move closer to a cartoon apple, and then eat it (by hovering over it and making it disappear.) He strung together an icon for an action, "see," with an object, "red," a behavior, "move," with a modifier, "closer."

He then showed how a child could program two Bokus. It looked like this::

MacLaurin said he was motivated to create the software by a desire to get kids away from passive TV-watching, and getting them to exercise their brains, in their very early, formative years.

He said he was inspired by his first computer, the Commodore 64, which he programmed in Basic. He projected a screenshot of the Commodore, with its tiny memory, and monochrome display with a black background, which, he said, signified infinite possibility. He singled out the blinking cursor for particular affection.

"It's like your dog waiting for you at the end of the day, saying, 'C'mon, I've been waiting for you all day! Let's play! Let's write some code!'" MacLaurin said.

MacLaurin said his other inspiration was Logo, the educational development language developed by Seymour Papert at MIT in 1967.

Boku is designed to eliminate the extraneous housekeeping of programming, and deliver to kids the head-rush of solving a problem and seeing a program work. There are no possible syntax errors; the only programs it's possible to create are correct ones. Programs can run quickly after they're created.

When the software is released, Microsoft hopes to build an online community where kids can discuss Boku and share programs, MacLaurin said.

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