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A Robot for Developers and Educators

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A Robot for Developers and Educators

Season 3 · Episode 15

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Engineer Ian Bernstein talks about his startup’s newest consumer robot released by Misty Robotics: Misty II. Based on what he learned developing his previous educational robot Sphero, Ian and his team created Misty II to be widely customizable, programmable, and full of potential functionality. The robot may be on the pricier side, and Ian says that it’s worth it. He also discusses why he thinks robotics can promote education and how he got interested in robotics when he was young.

Our closing music is “Yes And” by Steve Combs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Pius Wong  0:00 

Let's hear about a new programmable robot system on The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.


Pius Wong  0:10 

Today's guest believes that robots are our future. And he says that customizing robots can teach us about algorithms, physics, artificial intelligence, art and design, and many other subjects. That's why he's developed his new line of robots. I'm Pius Wong. My guest is Ian Bernstein, engineer and founder of Misty Robotics based in Boulder, Colorado. Ian spoke to me about his new robot Misty II. Listen to our talk, next.


Pius Wong  0:43 

Alright, so again, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to talk to me.


Ian Bernstein  0:47 

No problem.


Pius Wong  0:48 

You've got a new robot out there, a new educational robot called Misty II. Wondering if you could just explain a little bit or tell me a bit about Misty II.


Ian Bernstein  0:58 

Yeah, so Misty II is coming out in December. Misty is a robot. She's about 18 inches tall. You can get a white one or a black one. Her design, she has tracks to drive around. She has arms, a head, a visor and a face. She's really -- it was really inspired by -- I mean, we probably went through 150 different iterations on the design, but a lot of her design was inspired by, sort of like Wall-E and Eva and Baymax and sort of cute robots like that. And she's designed to be a personal robot for the home, but also very programmable, so that anybody, from being a kid to a professional programmer, can get into robotics, having not known anything previously about robots, but easily get into robots and really start to figure out how robots can be used in homes and offices.


Pius Wong  1:55 

Okay, because you, yourself, you're not new to robotics, and it sounds like this is the new thing, that you're making a robot that people can program, that they can change. Is that right?


Ian Bernstein  2:05 

Yeah, so I got into robotics when I was 12. When I first built my first robot, in 2010, I, I've always -- that's basically all I did through middle and high schools, built robots. And after college, an internship at a robotics company. And then in 2010, started a company called Sphero. We made this robotic ball that was connected to your smartphone. And it was kind of a happy accident around 2012 that we found that it also worked really well for education and teaching programming and engineering and all kinds of different -- and art, as well. So it's more like STEAM. And then a year ago, we spun out this new company to do a more advanced robot. So Misty is kind of that -- you know, if you look at STEM education, it would be the next step beyond a Sphero Spark or a Lego Mindstorms, where you can really start to do more interesting -- like, even useful things for people. But fun as well. But it's kind of that next step beyond those types of products.


Pius Wong  3:15 

Yeah, you mentioned some of the other products that basically are your competition, like Lego Mindstorms is the big one. I think a lot of engineering teachers, robotics teachers, know about that. What is different about Misty compared to, for example, Legos, Lego Mindstorms?


Ian Bernstein  3:30 

So what we found -- One of the things for instance that we found with Sphero is that, you know, teachers have a have a limited amount of time in their class period that they need to convey some different things. So Sphero provided a lot of creativity. But there wasn't like, you know, 500 pieces and things to lose, and different parts, and then you'd have to disassemble your project after. So Misty can be extended by hardware, so you can 3D print your own accessories and stuff like that. But it is a built robot. It's more about the software side, but you can do things like face recognition. She can map your space, so she can actually navigate from room to room or around the classroom. She can listen, so voice recognition and voice interactions. She has a really good speaker system. Personality, so people can write their own personalities for Misty.


Pius Wong  4:32 

Yeah, because to be clear, your face is actually like an LCD screen or something. Is that what it is?


Ian Bernstein  4:37 

It is. So it is an LCD screen face, but it's set behind this clear visor, so it gives it depth. It doesn't necessarily feel like a screen face.


Pius Wong  4:50 

So you can program facial expressions and get into that if you wanted to.


Ian Bernstein  4:55 

Yeah, exactly. And the idea is to try to get -- I mean, our big vision is to get robots doing more useful things for us, taking all those sort of mundane tasks out of our lives. So getting robots that could actually do useful things, waking you up in the morning and following you around as you're getting ready for work or school or whatever you're doing that day. Watching your pets, being your little security bot when you're not at home, that sort of thing. And then of course, you can add on different things to Misty, as well, if you want to be creative around that site and add an gripper arm or add other sensors to it.


Pius Wong  5:35 

So Misty II has all of those capabilities that you mentioned, being that security robot and some kind of, I don't know, sensor robot. It can do all that stuff?


Ian Bernstein  5:46 

Yeah, it certainly has the capabilities. But right now it's up to the community of people to sort of write these skills. We're providing a platform and making it easy, so abstracting a lot of these -- which in the past have been very, very, very difficult, hard engineering problems, like mapping for a robot, and turning that into something that a kid could figure out. Like, hit one button and Misty will automatically drive around and generate that map. And then you get like a floor plan of your space on your computer or your mobile device. And then you can just tap on it to get Misty to navigate to that spot or get the coordinates of that spot, which then people can -- somebody could use in their program that they're writing. So just taking these really advanced things that haven't really been obtainable. If you're if you're a PhD in robotics or something it makes sense, or a software engineer, but bringing this stuff to the level that, again, like a kid can have access to it.


Pius Wong  6:49 

Right. Yeah, for example, Lego Mindstorms are definitely not gonna have a one button press map creation function. And I don't think they do voice right ignition necessarily either. You use that word "skill," like you want it to make it so that Misty was open source, it sounds like, where people can contribute their skills to the robot. Is that something you think you want to see? You want educators to have their students create skills and upload it to some collective repository that other people can use?


Ian Bernstein  7:24 

Yeah, exactly. So we have a community right now of people that are -- we're just starting to get some of these robots out. It's community.mistyrobotics.com, and people are already starting to share some of the skills that they're writing. Eventually we'll have sort of that same app store experience that download apps onto your phone. You'll have that same skill store experience where you can easily load skills onto your Misty, so people, you know, say kids can try out different things that other people are writing. They can -- Hopefully a lot of these skills will be open-sourced and shared so they can download the code and, you know, add on to it, modify it, use it as a reference for their own projects that they're working on. Ultimately, really progress and progress robotics, and really learn about robotics, because there's a lot of great things about robotics for education, right? Because it encompasses so many different disciplines, from art to software engineering, to mechanical to electrical to psychology, and all kinds of different things.


Pius Wong  8:35 

Totally. And so from what I see of Misty, I mean, it's got more intelligence or more capability for intelligence. You've kind of abstracted a lot of things out to make it easier to program. It's probably like you said less focused on the physical design of things. So let's talk about that programming. Then how do kids program it? What's the language or languages, and what would that look like?


Ian Bernstein  8:59 

So we're starting at the very base level. Right now it's in in Blockly, which is sort of an equivalent branch of Scratch, which a lot of educators and kids are already familiar with, right? So you can program her without writing a single line of code and just dragging some blocks into a workspace and hitting run. So that's at the base level. Her textual programming language is JavaScript. So once you sort of graduate from that Blockly Scratch environment, you can also generate JavaScript code to see, you know, what the blocks are actually generating. And then you can write this JavaScript code on your device or send that code to the robot to run autonomously.


Pius Wong  9:49 

That's pretty cool. Do you imagine or have you already seen classes using the robot in that way? They use it to teach programming, either block programming or or JavaScript?


Ian Bernstein  10:00 

So we are we are just starting to ship, so we haven't had -- well, other than events, like we have sort of these robothon hackathons at our office where we've seen kids program it there. We haven't seen Misty in classrooms yet just because we haven't shipped. But of course on the Sphero side, where six of us on the team worked for many, many years, and I helped cofound Sphero -- Sphero is in probably ten, fifteen thousand schools worldwide now, so a lot of experience seeing how kids use that. And Sphero is the same with a block-based language to program it and then JavaScript as well.


Pius Wong  10:43 

That's cool. And so since you have that experience with Sphero with educators, I'm sure that you already know that, like, giving teachers piece of educational technology sometimes doesn't work alone. I'm wondering what educational support do you think you can provide to teachers who want to have Misty. Is there any curriculum? Or I know you mentioned the community that's available. That seems great. What else do you have available for educators?


Ian Bernstein  11:10 

So a lot of it's just sort of one-on-one support and working with them and talking to teachers. We found one of the best things that worked at Sphero and I think we're going to do here at Misty, as well, is just creating that community, creating a place that teachers can share ideas, share the lessons that they're coming up with, because a lot of them were like -- We quickly discovered that educators are a lot better at educating than we are. So just creating a place where they can -- where this community can come together and people can share ideas was one of the biggest things. And again, just being able to support them, one-on-one and have these, you know, personal discussions and comments was really helpful.


Pius Wong  12:02 

This is really early then. You're taking the ideas from educators who are coming on board, it sounds like.


Ian Bernstein  12:08 

Yeah, absolutely.


Pius Wong  12:10 

Absolutely. How can teachers get their hands on it firsthand? Because I think a lot of teachers would be super interested in this, but they don't want to just commit to buying a bunch of robots right away. Is there any way they can see demos or play with it a little bit before they decide they want to order it?


Ian Bernstein  12:30 

We're exploring different -- and we do have some educational discounts -- but we are exploring ways that -- and we'd love ideas from people, as well. But how -- exploring ways that people can, like you said, can try it out or see a demo or something, either maybe it's, you know, some different online webinars and stuff that are more interactive, so teachers and educators can ask questions that we can answer and actually maybe demos certain things on video for people. But yeah, totally open to different ideas and models that might work for educators.


Pius Wong  13:10 

Yeah, I'm sure the computer science teacher conventions and the engineering education conventions would be great places. I always am a fan of South by Southwest since I'm from Austin. But then, so the biggest sell or the biggest hurdle, I would say, that educators would have in buying educational technology, including these robots, Lego Mindstorms, whatever it is, is getting through their administrators, their principals and the people who are spending the money. What's your pitch to them? Like administrators care about how much it costs, how much kids are going to learn. What do you tell principals and those people about your robot?


Ian Bernstein  13:49 

Well, I think robots are going to be really important. Like I've had this story that, couple years ago I was thinking about how the computer industry got started as we're thinking about robots today, and ended up calling my dad, because when I was five, he bought this Apple to me from a friend of his. And thinking back a couple years ago, I was like, wow, you know, we didn't grow up with a lot of money. And it was probably the largest purchase financially that my family ever made I can think of growing up.


Pius Wong  14:28 

A thousand dollars? Or how much was impacted? I'm trying to remember.


Ian Bernstein  14:31 

Yeah, I think used it was about $1,000 at the time that he bought it, which you know is how many in today's dollars, right? And I asked him -- he's not like a tech gadget person. He was a he's a professional musician. So I asked him, like, you know, why did he buy it? Like, it seemed kind of crazy thinking back. And he said, Well, I bought it for you. I saw computers and I thought they might be important in the future. And I wanted you to know about them. And obviously worked out for me, and I've told this story to several people and they've -- I've heard back, like, wow, like, that's actually what my family did. And here I am today at a tech company, or a founder of a tech company or an engineer, right? And in thinking about where, you know, a five year old today -- I think we're in that same spot with robotics. And if you think, you know, 15, 20 years from now, and these kids who are five today are graduating college and going into the workforce, like, robots are going to be so important. So you know, what would I say? It's a little bit more forward-thinking but these robots -- and not just sort of toy robots, but actually working with robots that can do useful things that have these levels of sensors and having this understanding is really important. Really important today for kids and adults as well, right? Because that's where we're all going, right? Just like computers are today. The more proficient we are in computers, the better it is for -- It makes it a lot easier to get a job, right? It's going to be the same for robots in the future.


Pius Wong  14:49 

It sounds like an investment of sorts.


Ian Bernstein  16:08 



Pius Wong  16:11 

Schools and educators can be the judge of whether that investment is right for them right now. The Misty II robot is listed as $1,999 for one unit. Ian explained that educators get discount offers, getting a couple of hundred dollars off each robot depending on how many robots a school buys. Details on the educator offer are linked in the show notes. Now, back to the topic.


Pius Wong  17:00 

What age range do you expect to target with Misty? I know that you've got lots of capabilities with the voice recognition and the mapping and all these different actuators. So is it more for older kids? Or what do you think?


Ian Bernstein  17:16 

I would say anywhere from five and up. Surprisingly, I mean, I've seen kids, four and five with Sphero programming pretty complicated stuff with Sphero at that age in Blockly. So I -- which kind of blows my mind, but like...


Pius Wong  17:38 

No, I don't doubt you because it's Blockly, and I have seen similar things with other robots.


Ian Bernstein  17:44 

Right. So I'd say it starts around there. And then of course, high school to university because you can go so far with this robot. And like I was saying, you can really go beyond a lot of the the more educational robots that are out there. You know, you can basically go as far as you want. So really strong in sort of high school and college as well.


Pius Wong  18:08 

It sounds like some teachers -- I mean, they might -- teachers might want to have some kind of background a little bit in programming. Like, could they just go cold and try to figure out how to use Misty? What do you recommend?


Ian Bernstein  18:22 

I think because of the block-based programming language, I think anybody -- and I think that's one of the reasons that Sphero was so successful is that you really can just sort of jump right in even if you don't have a strong engineering background. And because the product -- not just from the programming perspective, but just because the product is so simple to use, you just flip a switch and it comes on, Misty can charge herself, that sort of stuff. You don't really have to know anything about robots or software engineering or anything to to be able to build some lessons around it. And it doesn't even have to be programming, either. Like I was mentioning, we release all the CAD models for the arms of Misty. There's some different magnetic attachments on the head. There's a magnetic backpack, which has an Arduino in it. If you know what an Arduino is, it's just a little electronic board that's quite easy to program. And there's  hundreds of thousands of projects online with sample code. So you can basically plug your Arduino project into the back of Misty, as well. So there's lots of different pieces of Misty that you can work with. It doesn't necessarily even have to be the programming piece.


Pius Wong  19:43 

Okay. You talked about releasing a lot of the design files or CAD files to the public. And then you also talked about sharing code in the community. So this open source philosophy seems to be pretty important too.


Ian Bernstein  19:59 

So it's not 100 percent open source, but it's enough that you can be very creative and almost tweak everything about the product. But maybe, you know, some of the hard, like really hard SLAM algorithms for doing mapping and navigation and stuff like that, maybe that's not -- all that source code isn't open sourced, but you'd be able to have lots of hooks into that to do pretty much whatever you want. So it's almost one hundred percent open source without being open source, if that makes sense.


Pius Wong  20:32 

Why make all this available to people anyway?


Ian Bernstein  20:35 

Yeah, I mean, part of our model is, we want to do something big and get robots in more people's homes and, I mean, ultimately, we want robots to, like, fold our laundry and cook our food and, you know, do all this stuff, like the things that are super time-consuming for us that we, you know, we should be outside doing something or spending time with our families, than, you know, doing laundry. But if you think about other technologies, for instance, your smartphone, most of the apps, almost all of the apps on your phone aren't written by Apple or Google, right? They're written by third-party developers. So the same way, like, there's no way that Apple or Google, even with hundreds of thousands of employees, could build all of the different things that people would want and have the creativity and innovation to build all those different apps, right? It's impossible. So same way, like, we want people who are, you know, all different kinds of backgrounds and having so much creativity and innovation, building the different skills for Misty. So that's one of the reasons we wanted to open up. People will come up with stuff that we could never even think of, and allow those people to share it with other people.


Pius Wong  21:56 

So you're building not just a product, you want to build a platform where people can learn or do whatever they want with it. I think I get it.


Ian Bernstein  22:02 



Pius Wong  22:03 



Ian Bernstein  22:04 



Pius Wong  22:04 

You kind of talked about this already, but like, you have an engineering background yourself. That's kind of how you got into this. You've been into robotics since you were a kid, you said. What is so appealing about it?


Ian Bernstein  22:19 

I think a lot of it is that creativity. My dad bought me that computer when I was five, I discovered this language called Logo. It's this little turtle you would program to draw different shapes on the screen. And then I went on to BASIC, and when I was 12, I was I was homeschooled at the time, and my dad -- We learned about this robotics competition that was going to be happening a  couple hours away from where I grew up in New Mexico, and decided to check it out. The first day, walked in, and they were like, Hey, are you here for the workshop? And we didn't even know about that. Ended up going right into this workshop and built my first robot, and I was just totally hooked, because -- I don't know, I really like being hands-on. And I've always liked sort of the artistic piece of it, like, because there is an art to a lot of robotics, right? The form factor and things like that, making it look good, and usually a lot of times things that look good also function well. But then sort of back-end engineering and problem-solving and how it encompasses just a broad set of skills. The mechanical piece of it, the electrical piece of it, the firmware, the high-level software, and then being able to put all these pieces together. I don't know, I just -- it's so much fun to me.


Pius Wong  23:54 

It sounds almost by chance, though, like if you never took that workshop, would you have run into robotics?


Ian Bernstein  24:04 

I don't know. It's it's an interesting question. And I know -- I mean, even ever since I can remember, I always had this cardboard box. I mean, I was probably two or three years old or something. And I would just like, take things apart, like broken electronics and cameras and stuff. And I would just try to fix them. Of course, I couldn't, I would just take them apart. But I was always sort of had that, like, really hands-on mindset. But yeah, I don't know. If I hadn't discovered robotics then, I feel like I must have -- would have discovered it at some point.


Pius Wong  24:45 

I'm asking because engineering teachers probably totally agree with you about the value of robotics and the creativity of it and the connection to art. They agree. And I guess the problem always is, how do you get more kids to see the same thing. And it's funny when talking to engineers like you, because a lot of the times it is kind of this one-off event that happens that kind of brings you into it. I'm wondering if you have any other ideas. You've worked with a lot of other engineers. I'm curious if you've seen any patterns for tips in how to attract more people into not just robotics, but the creative engineering fields.


Ian Bernstein  25:26 

I mean, obviously, one is exposure, right? If I wasn't exposed to the robots, like you said, maybe I wouldn't have found it. So getting them out there and then I think just facilitating the different pieces of it. So there's a lot of stuff around Sphero on the art side, right? Like there's a there's a cover that you can get. I mean, Sphero is waterproof, so you can drive Sphero through paint. And you can write a little -- either just drive it manually, or you could write a program to do a pattern and draw something and paint on a piece of paper on the floor. So I think it's, you know, part of it, especially with these robots, maybe not just going straight into the programming piece, but showing kids that there's so many different aspects like 3D printing, like a different arm, like I made a little little gripper arm, and I made another one that has a little laser pointer in it, like play with your pet. Or even like decorating Misty. So one of our engineers is really into LED lighting. So he made a LED Mohawk for Misty, which is kind of like, it's just something that's really fun and LEDs, and it's a mohawk, but it teaches -- but on the backside, it's sort of learning through play, right?


Pius Wong  26:51 

What are some of the biggest challenges you see when dealing with the field? And I ask this because I know first-hand, a lot of students and teachers can get frustrated when doing robotics. Sometimes they just think it's too much or it's too hard or something. What do you face -- what do you think is challenging about robotics? And how do you get over that?


Ian Bernstein  27:17 

I mean, a lot of it is making it really easy. And it's not easy to make it easy, right?


Pius Wong  27:26 

Okay. Yeah. So your job is to make programming easy, and that, itself, is a challenge. Okay.


Ian Bernstein  27:33 

Right, and abstracting a lot of these concepts, like making it so that you can just hit one button and Misty will generate a map of your space. It's a lot easier to build a robot for roboticists or for an engineer that has a lot of experience in that space. Getting it so that a kid can sit down and do something really advanced, simply, is kind of that, you know, that last 10% that takes 99% of the the effort. So I would say that's really a lot of work, and it's challenging to figure out ways of abstracting that stuff.


Pius Wong  28:16 

Do you get frustrated in trying to solve these problems?


Ian Bernstein  28:19 

Oh, there are all kinds of frustrations. [laughs] Absolutely.


Pius Wong  28:22 

Okay, that's good to hear. Sometimes some kids, some teachers may think that engineers don't get frustrated, they just know all the answers. I'm assuming you did not build Misty in one go. You said there was many iterations through Misty.


Ian Bernstein  28:34 

Yeah, we're going through iterations. I was at the office until 2:30am last night, working on some stuff.


Pius Wong  28:41 

Well thanks for talking this morning.


Ian Bernstein  28:44 

No worries.  But it's fun.


Pius Wong  28:47 



Ian Bernstein  28:48 

Fun challenges.


Pius Wong  28:49 

It's finding that balance of being just challenging enough where you can have fun and it's not debilitating. How can we find out more about you and about Misty, Misty II?


Ian Bernstein  29:02 

I would say just through our website is probably the easiest. It's mistyrobotics.com. Yeah, and there's there's lots of stuff online if you search for -- just do a Google search for Misty Robotics or Ian Bernstein. There's a lot more information on my background and how I got into this stuff and Sphero and Misty.


Pius Wong  29:27 

And Ian, is that community that you mentioned earlier, is that something that's open to the public, as well? Or do you kind of already have to be a customer?


Ian Bernstein  29:35 

Oh, no, anybody that's interested in AI or computers or robots or whatever, is definitely welcome to come hang out and have discussions with us. We're all active on there, our engineers are active on there. So you can ask questions, any level of detail from, you know, high level down to, you know, deep engineering questions, if that's what you're curious about. And yeah, we just want to create a place where we can all get together and have fun and work on robots and do cool stuff.


Pius Wong  30:11 

Very cool. I hope that your message speaks to a lot of educators, a lot of students. I know that you've got a bunch of videos on there as well. You got a YouTube channel so people can find you however they want to. And Ian, I just want to say thanks again for taking some time out to talk to me, and to any educators or engineers who are listening to this, and good luck with your campaign. I hope that it keeps on developing.


Ian Bernstein  30:36 

Thank you. Really appreciate it.


Pius Wong  30:40 

That was Ian Bernstein of Misty Robotics. For more on Misty to and Misty Robotics, or for links to background information on anything else you heard here, check this episode's show notes or visit the podcast website k12engineering.net. Please take a minute and leave the podcast a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or however you're listening. Share it with your colleagues, tweet the show, follow us on Facebook. All of this helps me continue what I'm doing. And finally, a huge thank you to my Patreon supporters helping me cover my costs. You make this show possible. If you aren't yet supporting the podcast, consider pledging a sollar on Patreon. Go online to patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  31:26 

Our Closing Music is from the song "Yes and" by Steve Combs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs in Austin, Texas. Thank you for listening, and please listen again.


Pius Wong  31:51 

Hey, everyone, it's Pius again with a few post-show notes. Rachel and I have submitted to South by Southwest again, 2019, meaning, if you help us get there, we can go to South by Southwest, the conference here in Austin, Texas, and talk about a whole bunch of cool ideas. So what I would love for you to do is right now, if you're at your computer or on your phone, go to the voting website. It's panelpicker.sxsw.com. That's panel picker.sxsw.com and register if you haven't already registered, and search for my name, Pius, and our three proposals will pop up, and click the little up arrow to vote them up. If you want to know a little more about what we were proposing, Rachel and I wanted to again have the successful podcasting meetup. Last year it was awesome. We also want to live record people's thoughts about how digital media is going to play a role in education in the future. So there's that. The other proposals that we submitted were both to South by Southwest Edu and Big South by, South By Southwest proper. Some of our colleagues, some of our friends, offered to talk about their experiences as teachers, who are also now working in the tech industry, with startups or with major software companies. And we want to kind of reveal why teachers may be leaving their field or reducing their hours in their field to pursue some of these technology and engineering industries. I think educators need to hear that to learn about how to retain good teachers. We also think that company people and corporate people and investors need to hear this because they need to stop devaluing teachers. They need to look at the great stuff that teachers have to offer in the classroom and out of the classroom if they so choose. So if you want to vote that up for us, we would love that. Again, go to panelpicker.sxsw.com. Search for Pius, P-I-U-S, or just browse all the cool sessions, and we would love to have your vote. Thanks.