RoboCo (official website) is a unique VR experience designed for kids in grades K-12 to teach engineering and design principles for robotics. Here’s what we thought from a hands-on demo!
Everyone knows that robots are the future. One day they’ll make all of our food, drive our cars, handle most jobs, wipe our butts, and even take care of our kids while we’re too busy getting lost in virtual reality. But until the robots are self-sufficient and can build and design themselves, someone will have to do it. RoboCo is the sandbox builder that lets you do just that.
Developed by Wisconsin-based indie studio Filament Games, RoboCo lets you loose in a warehouse with a toolkit of gadgets and mechanical parts you can use to build the robot of your dreams. That’s if you’re dream robot is one that’s sole use is mediocre sandwich delivery.
“We wanted to create a virtual reality experience that can be used as professional practice,” Filament Games Brandon Pittser told me during a hands-on demo at PAX West. “[To] help people sharpen real world skills that can be used in actual work.”
My time with RoboCo was both hilarious and unproductive (in that I had a difficult time getting a working robot put together.) While a short demo is never enough time to actually experience a good part of a sandbox builder, the silly aesthetic the game has makes the real world-based physics and gameplay mechanics come off as loopy and over-the-top. You laugh and learn, I guess.
Outside of the open sandbox mode where you can build whatever you want, there will be a campaign with various challenges and environments. One I played had me build a sandwich carrying robot on wheels that could bring food across a busy cafe. Once I put together the necessary parts, a flat base, tall pillar, sandwich holding platform, and wheels, I had to actually pilot it across the cafe dodging clumsy humans. It worked about as well as you’d expect it to.
I eventually got the sandwich to the table, but not after a lot of struggle. It wasn’t a painful struggle as I was eager to jump back into redesigning my creation and get that sandwich to the hungry customer. RoboCo could use an easier way to jump between the creation mode where you design a robot and the challenge mode where you control the robot, but most of my experience was accessible and easy to digest.
“This was meant to be a day in the life of a mechanical engineer,” said RoboCo designer Joe Horan. “So initially we looked at how people train engineers and then make it more fun and silly, more engaging, and more appealing to kids. Also less frustrating when you’re dealing with random physics.”
RoboCo started with funding from the National Science Foundation and evolved into a consumer project where you can experiment with different design concepts. You’ll need to incorporate weight, balance, velocity, density, and a number of other factors into your designs.
“It’s focused more on design thinking,” Horan said. “So understanding the constraints of a design problem, iterating on a solution based on testing that you do. There will also be concepts based on the parts you work with too, like if you look at a specific piece you can actually see the multiple smaller parts it’s made up of and learn how it works.”
This is Filament Games first venture into the consumer arena as the studio has mostly worked with educational projects for higher learning. RoboCo is still all about learning applicable skills, but it’s highly gamified and a lot of fun to just sit and play casually.
RoboCo is headed to PC VR and PC on Steam in 2020.