I was recently sent the newest Humanoid robot offering from Meccano, the Meccanoid XL 2.0. It is apparently an upgrade from last years G15KS. Full disclosure, this was sent to me for free with no expectation that I send it back.
First up, it is a great build, my kids were drawn to it immediately. It is big (4' / 1.2m) tall which makes it quite a sight to see. The voice interactions are great and there is an impressive amount of commands you can use. Just a quick caveat, out-of-the-box, my Meccanoid had no response other than "I'd love to do that, right after you update my firmware". Firmware update was quick and painless.
Mechanically, the build was great fun for me. I love these kinds of systems and quite happily spent 5 hours putting this guy together. While the box says suitable for ages 10+, I think a 10 year old would really struggle and get quite frustrated at times. I like to think I'm quite good at these, and yet it still took me 5 hours. I think this is more suited to a parent/child combination working a few hours over several days.
When you open the box, there is literally a kilogram of nuts and bolts, so you know that you're in for a long build. The supplied hex-head screwdriver is great, but I found the accompany nut-holder tool pretty much useless. The times I needed something to hold a nut in a confined space, the tool let me down badly.
Meccano have copped flak for having all these parts in plastic rather than metal, but that didn't really phase me. One this this has allowed, is for the plastic parts to be moulded with nut housings and raceways. What this means is that you can place a nut in the housing, and once the bolt engages, it will hold itself in place, no tool necessary. There are a few parts where a 'raceway' has been moulded in, allowing you to slide the nut into the correct place, rather than having to delicately hold it into place. A lot of the angle connectors have moulder lugs in them which allowed for easy registration with their mating faces.
If you enjoy tinkering with mechanical stuff, you'll love putting this together.
The major downside was the instructions. I spend a *lot* of time teaching kids, and clear instructions are paramount. Meccano instructions were sadly lacking in many places. First up, they were too dark in places which made counting holes a little difficult (was it the 3rd or 4th hole from the end?) There were a few sequence of instructions in which I would wonder to myself "Why did they do it in that order?" With a little more thought put into them, they could have have made them a bit easier to assemble. When assembling the parts that have motor wires, they neglect to show you when to put the cables. On a few parts I inadvertently pinched the cables. Luckily I hadn't tightened the parts enough to cut through the cables and was able to reroute the cable along what I thought was the correct path.
Meccano claim that there are 3 ways of programming the G15KS, There is no information on their website about the XL2.0 however. The L.I.M. (Learner Intelligent Motion) programming is a little better. In this mode you can manually move the robots arms, head and feet around, and the robot will 'remember' the actions and play them back to you. Again, this is a lot of fun, but it doesn't really introduce kids to the concepts of Computational Thinking or Programming.
The G15KS had a motion capture mode when you could put your smartphone in the chest of the robot, and by utilising the smartphone camera, you could get the robot to do the same actions as you (Think exercise instructor out the front and the robot mimicking your actions). This appears to have been removed for the XL2.0 but I can't find any info to support this.
Voice Activated commands are a lot of fun and a great way to play with the robot, but I wouldn't exactly call it 'programming'. After a protracted attempt to load the Firmware Update software on my computer (requiring Microsoft .NET 3.5SP1), I could upload the latest firmware. After a quick systems check by the robot (checking that it was moving the correct arms), we could jump into Voice Activate commands. I'm not sure if it was the Aussie accent, but both myself and my 6 year old son struggled to get this to work nicely. Sometime it would recognise a command, sometimes it wouldn't. Overall though, he enjoyed seeing the robot react to his voice far more than I did.
The last way is via the App. With this app, you are given a virtual Robot on your smart phone/tablet that you can manipulate by dragging the arms/head/feet around. Similar to the LIM system, it'll remember this and play back when you need it.Something I did stumble across (but not through any info on the official Meccano website) is a new feature called Behaviour Builder. This has a lot more appeal for me as it implied you could string together different behaviours, and have them triggered on different inputs etc. This would be a great way to start teaching kids about the fundamentals of programming, namely Sequence, Selection and Iteration.
The Help screenshots are great for the basics. They tell you about the inputs and the outputs and what you can control. It seems a little incomplete however, as I found icons with no explanation about what they did.
The side palette toggles between inputs and outputs. On the inputs side, you can trigger the next action based on a few different things - Timer, Counter (To use as a FOR loop), Meccanoid Brain buttons or the Servo angle. This last one was the most fun, as you can trigger actions by lifting the arms of the robot or something similar.
On the output side, you can control the Feet motors, any of the Servo motors, make sounds and change the lights in the Eyes/Servos/Brain to just about any colour you want. You can also set in motion a animation sequence that you may have already created with the Rag Doll Editor. One thing that would have been nice would have been to have access to the pre-recorded movements that are available in Voice Command mode, ie. Kung-Fu, Dancing or Shake Hands. Unfortunately if you do want to do something similar, you have to plan out your own movements from Scratch.
I was able to do some basic programs whereby some basic inputs trigger some basic actions. When trying to do something a little more complex, using counters or timers, I couldn't seem to get them to work.
A bit more Googleing and I found these two awesome videos from Meccano. They were great in describing some of the more complex parts of the software. Hopefully they put out more of these as they were well done and fantastic in showing off the software capability.
This made things far more interesting, and would increase its relevance in a classroom situation. It is a little fiddly, but I eventually got the hang of creating an IF statement with the combined component. The Counter icon is a nice way to implement a FOR loop, but with no documentation on this function yet, I can't see kids figuring that out for themselves.
Having spent so much time on a variety of other Graphical programming environments, there were a few things which felt a little clunky. I can foresee kids getting frustrated trying to cut connections and re-position icons. Sometimes when the icons are dragged, the connecting wires stay logically connected, but they redraw often in weird directions, sometimes going behind other icons.
The icons required to drag out are tiny and drag smoothly to where you drop them. I gave up on my phone after a while and switched to a tablet just to save my sanity. In all fairness, this is likely how a classroom would run the programming given the prevalence of tablets in class.
This was a fun build for myself and while the software seemed very basic at first, I am beginning to see the potential of some more complex programming down the track. I however had a lot of experience with these types of platforms and I feel like a 'regular' kid might be at best, able to string together a few instructions and perhaps an occasional branched program.
Does this fit in a classroom? I don't think so. The build is way too long and fiddly to have kids working on it. The voice activated commands would get lost in the ambient noise of a classroom. The programming, while showing promise, just isn't quite ready for a novice classroom teacher to preset to a class other than the absolute basics. In addition, Meccano haven't released any Lesson Plans or Curriculum links so teachers would need to do those things themselves.
Is it an impressive robot for home? Definitely. It has a lot of great 'play' opportunities (although it struggles with our Aussie accents) and if there is a parent in the household that might be slightly techy / programming inclined, I can see the educational possibilities beyond just the 'play'.
Did I miss anything? Do you have something more to add that I've missed? Please let me know in the comments below.