Spectrum for the new generation, Part 1: Kano Computer Kit

Retronator Photo Review

Once upon a time, there was a small British computer called the ZX Spectrum. It had chunky rubber keys and all the commands you could give to it were written right there on the keyboard. It inspired half of the coders that came out of Europe in the 1980s.

My pixel art rendition of the ZX Spectrum.

When you turned the Spectrum on, there was nothing else to do but type in programs.

We didn’t start to code on our own right away—we learned by copying short programs from magazines, word by word. Even children’s magazines did their part. As soon as we learned to read uppercase letters, we were ready to jump into coding.

Ščepec Računalništva, Ciciban, 1986

We learned the meaning of commands from books or parents—or even dumb luck (call it curiosity)—and pounded the knowledge into our heads (and computers) by typing in a program after program after program. OK, let’s be honest, 90% of them were games.

Mirko tipka na radirko, Moj Mikro, 1985

Eventually we moved on from BASIC. Adults went on to wrestle with the power of machine language, while us kids had to wait for PCs and continue to QuickBasic, Pascal, VisualBasic, C#, Objective-C, JavaScript, CoffeeScript …

QBasic Gorillas, Microsoft, 1990

OK, that was just me. But my story was far from alone.

Thirty years later, there is another small British computer. No, I’m not talking about ZX Spectrum Next. As much as I love it, the Next is a new Spectrum for the old generation, not the new.

The Spectrum for the new generation is the Kano.

My pixel art rendition of the Kano Computer Kit Bundle.

Kano also has a small keyboard with chunky keys, and when you turn it on, there’s nothing else to do but learn how computers work.

Part of the intro when you turn on the Kano for the first time.

After a brief encounter with a neat ASCII homage to The Matrix …

… you are welcomed into the world that lives inside your computer.

It looks a bit like Zelda, except instead of fighting monsters you learn about computers and type in programs.

You don’t start to code on your own right away— you learn by copying short programs from interactive tutorials, word by word. As long as you can read and type, you are ready to jump into coding.

Sounds familiar? Yup, just like the 80s.

Kano is phenomenally successful. With over a million dollars raised, the first kit got massively funded on Kickstarter in 2013, becoming the most crowdfunded learning product at the time.

To date Kano shipped over 150,000 computers to 86 countries and the users shared over a hundred thousand drawing scripts like the house above, including modified versions and unique creations.

Drawings are just the tip of the iceberg though—learning to draw with code is simply one of the educational features.

To fully explain Kano I have to rewind time, back to when I first opened the box it came in.

A couple of months ago, Kano Computing sent me their Computer Kit Bundle, as part of an art collaboration I’m doing with them. The Bundle included their Computer Kit and Screen Kit ($150 each, or $285 for the Bundle), all of which are available from their webpage.

They’re called Kits because, like in the 80s, instead of buying an off-the-shelf computer, you buy a kit that you assemble yourself (and learn how things work along the way).

With all the pieces out of the box, you follow LEGO-like instructions to build your own computer.

It’s not exactly a masterpiece with hundreds of pieces—the chips and resistors are all in place already. In fact, the heart of the computer is a standard Raspberry Pi 3 Model B.

Kano adds on an SD card, the casing, a speaker (plugging in the power to the correct pins is as dangerous as it gets) and the iconic orange bluetooth keyboard.

The Screen Kit follows a similar pattern.

The instruction booklet again includes random tidbits of computer history and basic explanations of how the system works.

They even give you a magnifying glass to explore the driver board.

OK, maybe don’t expect exactly the level of magnification as my macro lens on the right. But I appreciate the idea.

Soon enough you end up with a computer you built yourself and hopefully your kids will care about it more than your taken-for-granted laptop which is daily liable for screen damage due to rage-quitting (true story … ah, kids).

The Brain, as Kano calls the computer part, clips on the back of the Screen for a nice, compact experience.

Of course you could have gone with any other HDMI display as well, but the Screen Kit does match the bluetooth keyboard perfectly.

With all the pieces in place, you are ready to turn the Kano on. The SD card comes pre-installed with a custom build of the Raspbian Linux distribution, prominently featuring Story Mode, the core of the Kano experience that glues all the educational components together.

Story Mode follows the mysterious white rabbit through a RPG-esque top-down world where you encounter many different characters and environments.

On the side of the Kano where the memory card is plugged in we have SD Beach …

We then travel to the power port …

Get it, power … port XD

… the Python Jungle …

… and Vector Village among others.

You make stops at libraries …

… and galleries …

… and complete simple quests along the way.

Sometimes you have to find knowledge bits that get stored into your Codex.

More often though, you’ll be jumping around, completing coding and computer-use challenges.

Drawing images with CoffeeScript is just one of the possibilites. A Scratch-like drag-and-drop programing interface allows you to modify the game of Pong.

More excitingly, you can use the same code blocks to build powers in Hack Minecraft.

For example, I made a simple script that builds stairs (I came up with this on my own, I’m super proud!).

If ZX Spectrum wore its coding commands on its sleeve, the Kano shows all you can do through its user interface.

Hack Minecraft offers just creative mode, but it’s neat how you can jump from coding to testing your powers with a simple key press (the game is always running on the left, no messy compiling necessary).

More surprising lessons offered by Kano include Make Snake where you launch a game of snake from the command line (you learn how to use parameters such as --theme Jungle to modify the game’s appearance), and Terminal Quest, a text adventure where you navigate through the world using the cd command, look at things with ls and cat, move items with mv and so on. Really clever!

I really do have to give kudos to Kano’s educational designers. All concepts are represented with slick associations (the Ether station serves the UDP and TCP trains) …

… and the characters don’t spare with cheeky programer humor.

Story Mode’s world is merely half-finished with many areas that are planned to open in the future (such as Memory Mines).

Looking at the world map reminds me of the excitement I get when visiting amusement parks—except the rollercoasters here teach you about computers!

Outside of the game, Kano offers other educational and creative environments (Sonic Pi for music synthesis, Scratch and Codeacademy for programing), other typical computer tools (drawing, writing, Gmail) as well as some extra games.

Yes, Transport Tycoon Deluxe is preinstalled!

It’s enough to get your kids started, with doors open for more content through Kano’s online app library in the future.

Just like with the ZX Spectrum, eventually your kids will move on. Hopefully not away from coding, but like our generation from the 80s, to more powerful languages.

Granted, when we were growing up, we didn’t have thousands of games at the tips of our fingers. Kids’ TV shows didn’t magically drizzle off of Netflix. Boredom alone made us fall completely nuts in love with computers.

But with some parental guidance, I’m sure you can set your kids on their way to love computer science. If the smiles that Kano is enticing from children across the globe are any indication, your job will be easy, rather than hard.

You don’t even have to shell out the $150 to get started. Kano offers their code editors online so you can try the tools for free (alas without the juicy Story Mode surrounding it). Just go to world.kano.me and start playing.

Like Neo says in The Matrix, I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it is going to begin.

After Kano’s initial Kickstarter in 2013, the company launched another campaign one year ago for 3 new peripherals: Camera, Pixel Kit, and Speaker.

The Pixel Kit is the reason Kano contacted me in the first place. It continues the narrative of Computer Kit and brings the story from behind the screen into the real world.

But more about that in Part 2.

Thank you yet again for reading Retronator Magazine! Special thanks to Kano Computing for providing me with their awesome kits, as well as commissioning me to do apps and art for them. Some of you know I recently finished my Master’s degree in Education—it was in a program called Learning, Design and Technology. Basically I was in a program where we studied to design things exactly like the Kano. I’m doing my bit with Pixel Art Academy (an adventure game for learning how to draw), but I also always wished there’d exist an entertaining way to learn how computers work. I’m glad Kano is beating me to it. See you soon in Part 2!

May the pixels be with you,