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This ingeniously simple device could help kids and even adults learn to code

Daniel Howley

To the average person, programmers and coders seem like hyper-wizards with keyboards permanently attached to their hands who weave together new hit apps, services and entire operating systems from the ether with the press of a few buttons.

In truth, these specialists spend hours agonizing over lines of code, at times working in completely different languages. It’s a difficult profession to master, but if you can, you could score a job with the likes of Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Facebook (FB), Apple (AAPL) and a hefty payday.

And that’s where Kano’s new Pixel Kit comes in. Available now for $79, the Pixel Kit is an educational tool designed to help anyone from kids as young as 6 all the way up to adults learn the basics of coding. And while not every kid will fall in love with it — it’s not a fidget spinner, after all — the Pixel Kit is an ingeniously simple device that helps marry the physical and digital worlds using a simple lightbox.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

I’m a 32-year old writer whose programming experience includes using Visual Basic and HTML in high school. In other words, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to writing code. When my programmer friends try to explain what they do for a living, I develop a spontaneous nosebleed and pass out. I think I might have a serious medical problem, but that’s for another article.

I’ve always wanted to learn to code, but it seems incredibly difficult. Also, I’m lazy and numbers scare me, which is why I’m a writer. But Pixel Kit does its best to hide the complexities of coding beneath a colorful, inviting interface that works a bit like building Legos.

The kit includes a lightbox, two buttons, a joystick, a knob, a USB cable and a case. The instruction manual, Kano explained, is designed to be both inviting and incredibly straightforward.

Childrens’ book-style art guides you through the process of assembling the Pixel Kit, which amounts to putting the buttons, knob and case together and attaching the USB cable to the Kit and your computer. You’ll also need to download the Pixel Kit app for your PC or Mac.

Once you’re set up, it’s time to get coding.

Shining some light on coding

The Kano app is relatively straightforward. You have an instruction box at the top of the screen that tells you exactly what to do. Below that, in the center of the screen, is your programming area and to the left of that are a series of toolbars.

Unlike actual coding, you’re not going to be doing a heck of a lot of actual typing with the Pixel. Instead, you drag and drop instruction blocks from the toolbars onto the programming area. You then run those commands, which directly affect the lightbox.

The blocks snap together and, when linked, directly impact the preceding block. Each block has a small piece of text explaining what it does, while others include a drop-down menu that allows you to control how they work.

Your first block will always read “When app starts.” The “app starts” section, however, is part of a drop-down menu that lets you change how the block functions. If, for instance, you want to create instructions to move a pixel one line up on the lightbox using the Kit’s joystick, you’ll need to start by changing “app starts” to “Lightboard up pressed.”

Initially, you’ll complete elementary tasks like telling the lightbox to light up a single pixel or switch on all of the box’s 128 lights. From there, you’ll learn how to change the color of the lights, add effects like a microphone so that the light responds to the sound and pitch of different noises and even create animations.

As you progress through the Kit’s tutorials you’ll slowly learn the skills needed to craft your own pixel-powered light show. But trying to keep track of the various commands you learn through the course of the trainer can be difficult, especially if you blast through scenario after scenario. If you’re giving this product to a younger learner, I’d highly suggest sitting down with them to keep them moving forward.

If you want to dig deeper into the code you’re creating, the Kano app gives you the ability to view the underlying javascript you’re building as you chain blocks together. I would have appreciated it if the app explained how the two relate to each other more clearly, though it’s at least nice to have an idea of what you’re actually making.

The world beyond the basics

Impressively, as you code with the Pixel Kit you genuinely feel like you’re creating something new and unique, even when you’re simply following the instructions. It’s the same feeling I had all those years ago when I was learning HTML. I wanted to get through the lessons as fast as possible to start making my own programs.

To help ensure you don’t get burned out trying to come up with your own code, Kano provides you with various challenges such as turning the lightbox into a weather station that displays the weather for specific locations, gets sports scores and even mimics the aurora borealis.

You can also see what other Pixel Kit users have made and uploaded to Kano’s site and then view the code they used to get a better understanding of how to build your own programs.

Should you get it?

The Pixel Kit isn’t for everyone. It’s a great tool to get children and pre-teens into coding (and a huge payday in the future), but adults hoping to develop the same skills will likely find the aesthetic a bit, well, childish. If you’re a kid at heart, though, you might actually enjoy the Pixel Kit’s handholding and the app’s reward-based leveling up system.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to program a poop emoji that rolls around my lightboard whenever my Pixel Kit hears a noise.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.