​Can this magic wand teach your kids (or you) to code?

Review: With its new kit, Kano hopes that magic - and Harry Potter - can get kids coding.

As Arthur C Clarke's third law has it, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Cars that drive themselves, speakers that play music when you talk to them, or lightbulbs that switch on when you ask them to can certainly seem like magic -- even if we know they are powered by millions of lines of software and the Internet of Things rather than wizardry.

London-based start-up Kano's latest device is a wand that aims to help you learn to write code, neatly bridging the worlds of magic and tech. The idea is to help kids and other Harry Potter fans explore and understand some of the magic and mystery of software code.

The Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit consists of a wand containing a slim printed circuit board that includes the microcontroller, a Bluetooth antenna (which is how it connects to your PC or tablet), sensors (including gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer) plus a codeable light and vibration controller. Once assembled, this can be used as part of coding tasks on a PC or tablet -- setting up code so that waving the wand upwards makes Bertie Bots Every Flavour Beans jump into the air, for example.

"In the world of Harry Potter there's this secret subsection of society, this mysterious class of wizards, and they have extraordinary powers: they can speak these magic words and move objects; they can get into your mind and make you do things; they can predict the future," says Alex Klein, CEO of Kano, which offers a range of build-it-yourself computing devices.

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The Kano programming interface.

Image: Kano

"There's a similarity between the world of Harry Potter and our world, which is there's that class of wizards here -- the computer scientists, the programmers, the machine-learning experts -- and they are writing the rules of society in a pretty meaningful way," Klein adds.

The big difference, he says, is that in the world of Harry Potter you have to be born a wizard or accept life as a boring Muggle: "But in our world these powers are accessible to you -- the idea is to take technological wizardry and introduce it to anyone in an accessible product."

The wand is fun to play with (see below) but there's also a serious message behind the Quidditch and magic spells; to demystify the software that's around us all the time, and maybe even to democratise it a little.

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If the technology we use is only being built by this "really small class of wizards in the Hogwarts of Silicon Valley with shared ideologies" then we will risk creating yet more hugely powerful platforms arising that don't represent or support the broader make-up of society, Klein argues. Encouraging more kids with broader interests to take another look at coding could help with that.

"We start you with art making, with music making. If the first thing you do with code is this purposeless, personal thing called art, I have this intuition that people will come through the system not just to get to the end result of getting a job at Facebook, or becoming a millionaire, or having a app in the top 10 of the app store, but for a different reason, which is curiosity, playfulness."

Next year a camera kit and speaker kit are promised (these were due to ship back in 2017, but have since been pushed back significantly) that will also aim to educate as well as entertain. "With those products we're going to be looking to demystify voice recognition and face recognition, and give people the ability to understand, at least at one level, the way those algorithms work. The direction has always been to progressively demystify the latest and most interesting and most socially relevant [technologies]," says Klein.

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Alex Klein, Kano: "There is that class of wizards here and they are the computer scientists, the programmers, the machine-learning experts and they are writing the rules of society."

Image: Kano

Assembly & setup

The wand itself comes elegantly packaged, with the disassembled wand covered by some gauzy transparent fabric that adds some mystery to the unboxing. Building the wand involves following the extremely clear instructions in the nicely illustrated booklet, which points out the different elements of the PCB like the accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, and explains what each do.

However, compared to DIY computer kits, there isn't really much assembly to do other than putting in the batteries and dropping the circuit board into the handle of the wand, which only takes a few seconds. Still, you'll at least understand what's inside and why. The wand itself is solid and has a programmable light and a button for casting spells (more on this later). After a quick pause to update the firmware on my magic wand (a phrase I'm pretty sure I've never typed before) it's straight into the coding.

If you've used another Kano device before you'll be familiar with the coding interface, which allows you to drag-and-drop chunks of code and build it up Lego-style.

Here the coding tasks are scattered over a map filled with Harry Potter landmarks like Diagon Alley and a Quidditch pitch, and the tasks themselves will be Potter-themed. You'll start to learn how to use the wand in The Leaky Cauldron, then onto the Owlery, which is the first real brush with coding.

Coding

The general idea is to use a mouse (or touch on a tablet) to drag code components into the right order so that waving the wand in a particular way will lead to an output that completes the task -- building the code so that waving the wand up or down will change the colour of an on-screen creature, for example. As such, the wand functions as a physical add-on to make the on-screen coding lessons a bit more fun and interactive.

The drag-and-drop design makes it easy even for a coding beginner to understand the logic and the order required to achieve the right result. Although there are plenty of on-screen prompts if you get lost, it would be nice to have a little more explanation of the various functions here and there. Perhaps the idea is to fiddle with the variables and try them out for yourself. There's plenty of direction as to how to complete the early tasks, but you don't have to do exactly what you're told: you can experiment and get things wrong, which I liked.

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As you travel around the map the tasks gradually get harder and harder, so that after a while they start to be quite challenging. In particular, the 'puzzles' that test your learning can be quite tough if you haven't been paying attention. As you work through the challenges there are the usual gamification elements -- levelling up and unlocking items for your avatar, for example -- to keep you interested. Kids can tweak the existing projects or create their own Harry Potter-flavoured apps or games once they have mastered the basics.

Some functions are accessed by using 'spells', which means holding down the button on the wand and waving it in a special pattern; these are illustrated on a poster included with the kit. This adds an extra level of fun -- even magic -- to the proceedings, although I found it difficult to master the correct patterns myself.

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Image: Kano

In some respects I found the wand a little frustrating in that you'd like to take the experience further. The tool outputs in JavaScript so you could connect to other data feeds, says Klein, giving the example of making the wand vibrate when your favourite cryptocurrency hits a particular price, or when the International Space Station is overhead. But I can also imagine that kids would like to use it to switch on lights or the TV, or to engage with IoT devices around the home.

The Harry Potter Kano Coding kit is a fun package: the Potter branding and the ability to build and use your own wand is likely to be a big lure for fans of the boy wizard, while the chance to encourage kids to learn something about coding while playing at magic is likely to go down well with parents too.

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