Innovation

Kano: A kit to build a computer and a new creative generation

Kano's Alex Klein tells TechRepublic about why people of all ages, not just kids, want to understand the tech they take for granted.

kano.jpg
Image: Kano

Raspberry Pi for Dummies is 432 pages long.

For a 6-year-old, newly presented with a Raspberry Pi board, that book goes something like this: TL;DR.

That was the situation Alex Klein, co-founder of Kano, a computer-building kit and Kickstarter smash, found out when he gave his little cousin Micah a board and tried to get him excited about it.

Mika wasn't opposed to the idea of playing with computers. He just wanted it to be a little more like Legos — easy, intuitive, and accessible without the help of adults.

So Klein, in a move that might qualify him for some type of Big Cousin of the Year Award, has spent the last two years working on a product that matches those descriptors.

Essentially, Kano is a kit that lets user build a computer. It comes with a Raspberry Pi board, a keyboard, cables, and a few other materials, like a customizable case, and the components of a speaker, which can be assembled with the help of an accompanying story booklet.

Once everything is put together, users can get started doing things like building and playing modified versions of Snake or Pong. They can use a bit of Python scripting to pull up a YouTube video or Minecraft.

Getting started, Klein teamed up with an Israeli entrepreneur named Yonatan Raz-Fridman. They moved into a North London flat together, and began buying up $35 Raspberry Pi boards to put in boxes.

Klein wrote a story for the kits describing how computers works, how the parts of the kit go together, and what coding can accomplish.

With an early version of the kit, they visited a classroom in North London and asked the kids 3 questions:

"Who here has seen the inside of a computer before?" Almost no hands went up.

"Who can tell me how a computer works?" Some kids had theories, like lots of wires connected, or tubes, but nothing concrete.

"Who here thinks they could build a computer?" Silence.

"This is the digitally native generation," Klein said, "yet this world beneath the screen is totally mysterious to them."

Klein told the kids that within the hour, they would all be building their own computers, making music, building a game — all without a word from him.

So, they did.

When time was up, Klein had an exchange with a little boy named Khalid which wound up being a seminal moment in Kano's development.

Khalid told him: "Adults, they think we're a bit incapable, but today we made a computer and we made it talk with this like matrix code and that makes us super children."

"I like that notion of super children. This generation, all they really need are simple, open, affordable tools, and their own imagination is going to take over," Klein said.

Beyond the popular move toward getting kids digitally literate, Klein thinks Kano speaks toward a broader cultural trend that applies to everyone.

"I think it's everyone's birthright, at least in this day and age, to have a way to make things and play around with technology," he said. "Not just to use the off-the-shelf solutions that are invented by the one percent of one percent, but to participate in this huge, massive, really global overturn of what it means to use and create a computer, and there is a creative spirit coming back to computing."

He likened Kano to classic chemistry sets kids used to get, something that would "make you laugh, and leave you with a set of new habits and patterns of thought, and [a way to ] understand the world around you and take control of it."

And for kids, the kit is a way to start learning about computers before getting hit with technical jargon.

It would seem that folks out there agree with the concept. Klein and Raz-Fridman took Kano to Kickstarter and set a goal of $100,000. They wound up with more than 13,000 backers pledging $1.5 million.

He thinks there's a latent hunger out there to understand the technology we take for granted.

"Whether you're a creative person, which we all really are, or a kid in school, what people like to do the most is poke life, to shape something for themselves," he said.

For now, they've got their first 20,000 customers to attend to. They also want to look at how to bring some of the projects they've seen in the Raspberry Pi eco-system to a broader audience — things like building a little camera, radio station, or robot (Micah is into this idea lately).

They might also look into translating their books into more languages, and seeing what add-ons they could, well, add on to the Kano kits once users are more comfortable coding.

"The forces of openness, simplicity, affordability and creativity. I think those four are converging now, and Kano wants to be this lovely, simple, computer kit that can give anyone, anywhere, an on-ramp," Klein said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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