It’s a great time to be a robot builder. With prices of components like motors and microcontrollers plunging, hobbyists can build and program fun and simple robots without spending too much. Still, putting together the moving parts of a robot takes a fair bit of mechanical know-how, expertise, and a steady soldering hand — not necessarily welcoming for beginners or kids. That’s why we’ve seen so many simple robotics and electronics kits like the timeless Lego Mindstorms kits to the modular LittleBits over the years. Ziro is a new kit that combines that simplicity with a really easy, fun control scheme — a glove that allows its wearer to control the robots they build with gestures.
ZeroUI demonstrated their new kit with a simple car made of 3D-printed parts, magnets, plastic wheels, a mounted smartphone, and the four motor units that make up the foundation of the kit. That car can be moved around with hand gestures using a connected glove over a Wi-Fi connection — there are preset gestures that can be programmed to trigger actions in each unit. Push your palm down like you’re pushing on an accelerator pedal, and the car will go forward. Turn your hand to the left, and the car will turn left.
But, Ziro is a bit more than a DIY RC car kit. Each robotics unit has its own microprocessor and communications component, meaning all four can be controlled independently using different gestures. So, instead of a car, you can build a robot and move its limbs one at a time by turning or squeezing your hand. It’s malleable enough to where early testers have surprised the guys behind ZeroUI with their ideas — at the New York Maker Faire, some makers grabbed a Halloween witch prop and added Ziro units to make the head and arms move, all while using gestures with the glove.
The mechanical parts themselves aren’t too complicated — each unit has a servomotor that can rotate clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the gesture used. The kits also have hinge units that can be attached to those motors, which can be used to move arms up and down instead of spinning wheels. These aren’t standard servomotors, though — they’re precision motors that can turn 90 degrees or spin faster or slower depending on the intensity of the input. Put more simply — the car goes faster the more you bend your wrist. When I tried it out this past week, control really was that intuitive. There are some limitations — it looks like only one gesture can be processed at a time, because the car would stop before turning — but response time was immediate and there was no learning curve.
The ZeroUI team has grander plans in store for the future. They’re prepping an SDK for the glove, so developers can find other uses for the control glove. They’re also looking into getting Ziro into classrooms as an entry level introduction to robotics — perfect for both teachers and students who might not know too much about the ins and outs of robotics yet. The hope is that Ziro will inspire those students to delve deeper into how robotics work, getting them into more complex and technical robotics (and hopefully a career!). They can still delve deeper with Ziro, too — while the app and the preset gesture will be the main mode of control, it should eventually be possible to make custom programs to control the robots, too. But, those extras are stretch goals on the funding campaign right now, so no guarantees just yet.
Makers have taken to Ziro, too. It’s an easy way to prototype simple robot ideas or have a little bit of fun, like with the Halloween witch. It’s also a good way for those with 3D printers to bring some of their creations to life. And, for those a little worried about building their own robots, ZeroUI does plan to have premade kits, like a dog. The team told me materials included will vary, but could include cardboard or plastic. That broad appeal created a rush of interest that saw Ziro’s crowdfunding campaign meet its goal almost as soon as it had started.
The robotics units and the glove are all battery powered, and the team tells me most users should get about seven hours of playtime in one go. Because that’s five things to charge, ZeroUI is including a charging base with their kits. But, if you don’t want to disassemble your creation every time the parts need to be charged, the Micro USB charging ports are pretty easy to reach.
With a little creativity and some scrap material laying around the classroom or home, Ziro could be a huge hit with kids looking to build their first robot (what a time to be alive). The robotics units and the glove both have a rough, prototype look and feel to them, but they work smoothly. With the success the funding campaign has had so far, we expect ZeroUI will be able to make lots of improvements. They blew past their $30,000 goal in about a day, and now have a whole month to hit their stretch goals.
If you want to give Ziro a shot, there are two kits available on Indiegogo. The Ziro Trike kit includes two robotics units, plastic parts for the frame of the Trike, a smartphone mount, and the glove, while the Rover kit includes four robotics units, the frame of the Rover, a smartphone mount, and the glove. The Starter kit, which includes just the Trike parts, can be preordered with a $150 contribution, while the Pro kit, which includes parts for both vehicles, can currently still be preordered with a $200 contribution. ZeroUI is looking at January 2017 as the target ship date for all kits.