Spectrum for the new generation, Part 2: Kano Pixel Kit

Retronator Photo Review

I told you about the Kano Computer Kit in Part 1—it’s a computer that is inspiring a new generation of coders, just like the ZX Spectrum did with ours in the 80s.

After Computer Kit’s immense success on Kickstarter, Kano Computing announced three new products in 2016: Camera, Speaker and Pixel Kit. After a year of development, Pixel Kit has now shipped to backers and is available in Kano’s store for $80.

I spent the last two months collaborating with Kano, making apps for the Pixel Kit and illustrating their computers (like the one above).

Here’s my latest illustration, Pixel Kit retronated into pixel art:

You can think of the Pixel Kit in two ways. It’s an LED light board with 16×8 pixels, and it is also a handheld gaming device the size of a Game Boy.

In both cases, it’s yours to program. You can use it to display various information or visualizations, or to create small games controlled with a 4-way joystick and two buttons. It’s really up to your creativity.

Just like the Computer Kit, you have to assemble the Pixel Kit in a LEGO-like fashion. Well, in a 10-piece LEGO-like fashion.

Not pictured is the cute tilt sensor that plugs into one of the three USB ports.

Even though it doesn’t require a construction odyssey, it’s still pretty cool seeing the board with its chips and resistors and capacitors. The see-through case amplifies the notion that we should investigate how such a device works.

Once you have all the pieces in place, you turn the power on, and are greeted with a rich display of colors.

The big red dial on top lets you select between different modes. One includes three pre-built visualizations (color demo, audio visualizer, tilt sensor demo), another mode has just as many simple games (snake, lane switcher, breakout).

The modes numbered 1, 2 and 3 are where your own creativity comes in. It’s where you store your apps.

Pixel Kit is a completely separate product from Kano’s Computer Kit. It works as an educational tool on its own, and you connect it to any Windows, Mac or Linux machine (including the Computer Kit).

Actually, you don’t even need the physical Pixel Kit to write programs for it. Simply start Kano’s onboarding process at apps.kano.me/onboarding to get a taste of their drag-and-drop way of coding.

When you make your way through the first steps, you’ll get a whole range of coding challenges at world.kano.me/projects.

“The power to control light” is the one you want to choose to get a taste for the Pixel Kit.

You don’t need any programing knowledge to get started—learning from zero is kind of the point. The tutorial slowly introduces the possible blocks, a nice touch to not make things overwhelming.

Eventually you unlock all kinds of elements, some representing regular coding concepts (for loops, if statements), others allowing you to control the device (turn on lights, play animations and sounds …).

The blocks are just as expressive as traditional programing languages, if a bit tedious for a veteran like me (the approach is optimized for beginners). Still, speaking to the versatility, I successfully coded all my ideas with it, from a fractal explorer to a physics engine.

When you buy the actual Pixel Kit, it comes with the Kano Code desktop app.

Even if you completed the 6-level preview online, 26 new instructional challenges will keep you occupied for a while as you go over the basic functionalities of the device.

Once you get the hang of it (or as soon as your curiosity exceeds your patience), you’re off to building whatever your heart desire.

I made light shows that react to music with it …

… and utilities such as clocks and countdown timers.

Using its wi-fi to get live data from the Internet, I made a tracker for the International Space Station:

As you can see on the right, the code for it is very short, if not simple. You need a little bit of math to convert the longitude and latitude from degrees to pixels, and some simple logic to create the blinking indicator.

This is a great example how you can apply your equation-solving skills from Math class. It works the other way too. When you realize math solves real-life problems, you get motivation to learn and practice it.

Coding this was a walk in the park for me, but even I learned something new. When I was making the app, the ISS appeared close to Brasil.

15 minutes later I looked at the app again and the space station was already below Africa!

I googled to learn more about the ISS and found out it circumnavigates the globe in just 90 minutes! I had no idea it moves that fast and making this app created a cue for me to learn that.

This is just one example of Pixel Kit’s educational potential. Your creativity is the only limit to all kinds of interesting applications you can do.

Granted, the Mandelbrot fractal explorer was not one of my brightest ideas—the screen is just too small for anyone to know what’s going on.

The program is still managable in size though, and Kano even lets you see the JavaScript code that gets generated.

You quickly learn to embrace the small canvas size. A better go at it was a bouncing ball.

Points to people that know what this is inspired by. Hint: Amiga.

Remember middle-school Physics?

Distance=speed×time, speed=acceleration×time …

Who knew a couple of equations is all it takes to make a core of a game’s physics engine. It all fits into just a few dozen blocks.

Full code for the bouncing ball demo.

There is a connection between wanting to make a Mario game and having motivation to learn Newton’s laws in Physics class. Your kids’ teacher might (sadly) not point this out, but you as an awesome parent can fill the motivational gap.

Now, you might say you don’t know enough about coding to help your kids … Well, what a great opportunity to learn together! While I wouldn’t recommend Kano’s previous educational tool to adults (Computer Kit is too small for comfortable use and explanations too simplistic for your level), the coding tools that come with Pixel Kit are great for beginners of any age.

Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself enjoying it so much that before you know it, your physics engine will expand across five screens, and have support for multiple balls and even collisions between them.

OK, maybe that’s just me. But you get the idea.

You might instead go for a breakout game:

It even comes with 4 levels of increasing difficulty and unique colors!

Or a simulation of light particles being refracted through a prism:

Don’t worry. Not everything requires hundreds of lines of code. I’m amazed at how many cool things you can do with just one screen of blocks, like my new illustrated weather station.

Finally, I have to talk about how tangible making programs and games for the Pixel Kit is.

While you code, your app is always running in the preview window and on the actual Pixel Kit.

As soon as you add a block, or change a number, the app updates. The feedback is immediate. Being able to quickly try things and see the results like that is very rewarding and promotes curiosity and learning by doing. They really nailed this part.

It’s not just coding, too. When you’re drawing images and animations, the physical device is drawing the pixels with you.

16 by 8 cells might seem like a tiny canvas, but that didn’t stop the neighbor’s 7-year-old to draw characters and a city for an “Ironman vs Loki” video game.

I haven’t explained copyright infringement to him yet.

The small resolution is good on two fronts. First, it limits the scope of your projects (so you’ll actually finish something). Second, limitations breed creativity.

Pixel art tutorial-master Pedro ‘Saint 11’ Medeiros wrote a wonderful article for Kano’s blog on the challenge of ultra-limited space.

Eye (left), Tweet (middle), Spooky Collection (right), Pedro ‘Saint 11’ Medeiros, 2017

We now have to wait 20 years to see if the 30-year-olds of 2037 will look back on the Kano as fond as I do on the ZX Spectrum.

I like to joke that BASIC is my first language, because I learned it through repetition at a very early age, just like my mother tongue. It seems like a crazy way to learn, but now it’s also a crazy good advantage, to be able to think like a computer as easily as I think with words. I don’t always see blondes, brunettes, and redheads in the code, but the ability to make your computer do anything sure feels like being Neo.

The final question is: which side of the Matrix do you want to be?

I hope you had a good time tumbling down the rabbit hole with my two Kano articles. Another thanks to Kano Computing for supplying the kits and commissioning me to play with pixels for them. I’ll also make a video version of this article soon, which might become a more common practice for Retronator Magazine (I already have an editorial written that will also come out in video form on the Retronator YouTube channel).

Go get ‘em those coding superpowers, kids!