The Ifs with Borja Latorre

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In this episode, we’re talking to Borja Latorre, co-creator of “The Ifs” – and educational toy which is similar to If This Then That for the physical world and fo course it’s for kids.

Our interviewee, Borja, is a software developer with over 15 years experience in research & development for scientific applications. He holds a B.Sc. in Physics and a M.Sc. and Ph.D in Computer Science. Borja truly believes that technology has the potential to make the world a better place. In 2013, he co-founded Makeroni, a non-profit organization to create digital craft projects with social impact. 

Sorry for the relatively poor audio quality on this episode & please see the full transcript of this episode below.

The Ifs is his first hardware product, accompanied by his teammates Luis, Esther and Ferugs, on which they’ve been working for more than 2 years before launching on kickstarter. The Ifs originally launched on Kickstarter just before Christmas in 2019 and unfortunately did not meet its funding goal of $200.000 – but in the end more than 50% got funded which also shows that there was clear interest. 

We’ll explore together with Borja in the interview, what their learnings are and their next steps. 

So what is The Ifs? It’s an educational toy that teaches kids from 3 to 10 years old the basics of computer programming. This is done with a family of four cube-like robots, each of them has different superpowers or features. The robots are programmed by the kids in a super simple, if this then that fashion: you snap the if block onto the robot’s top and then the action block and there you go, the robot will behave as you programmed it. 

So the If’s is tangible play & learning, a bit like IFTTT for the physical world and for kids, it’s screen-less, physical, colorful and no prior coding skills are required. It’s really well thought through and really a shame this project did not meet it’s goal. So let’s hear what Borja has to say. 

Shownotes

Full Transcript

Hi Owen – for Borja – it’s great to have you on the show – how are you?

Fine Sven, thanks. We are huge fans of your podcast and I’m are very happy to be talking to you today.

So who originally had the idea to create the Ifs? 

The idea was born in a nonprofit organization I co-founded where we develop technology-based prototypes with social impact. We had worked on several prototypes before, but they never seemed to come together into something marketable, so we started brainstorming ideas to find a product we could actually make and deliver to the “real world”.

Most of the team has children and some of us are technology teachers, so the idea took shape quite intuitively. It was a time when the first toys aimed at introducing children to technology and programming were starting to appear. These toys were kind of the starting point. Personally, I found most of them too technical and a bit boring, so exactly the opposite became the purpose of the Ifs: to learn programming while having fun. By fun I mean running, jumping, hiding, getting into mischief, and all the things children usually do to have fun…so the ifs are basically playmates.

Can you give us a quick intro to the Ifs?

The Ifs are a family of small robots with cute faces in the shape of cubes. Initially, when you take one, they don’t do anything, so you have to program them by placing different colored magnetic blocks on their heads. These blocks are divided into 2 groups: IFS (conditions) and THEN (actions). Since there are many blocks, there are lots of combinations. For example: with two IFS, we can place on one IF the blocks “IF I’M TURNED UPSIDE DOWN”, “THEN CALL THE REST”, and on the other If “IF I’M CALLED” “I LIGHT UP”. This way we would turn one If into a lamp and the other into a remote control.

And I think there are 4 different robots which different superpowers. 

The base skills of the Ifs are all the same, but each character includes one unique special skill. Right from the start these extras seemed fun, and we have used them to give each member of the family their own personality traits. Holly, the daughter, has feelings, Emma is the mum and changes color, Noah is the son and shakes; and Liam, the father, includes a presence sensor.

So let’s talk about Sensors and Actuators.

All the members of our family of robots include accelerometer, gyroscope, microphone, photosensor, and actuators for sound and music, vibration, and lighting up in different colors.

How (just quickly) does it technically work to detect the if/then blocks – NFC?

Each block has an NFC tag. The head of the If has an NFC reader that can read up to two tags at the same time. We thought it was a flexible technological solution, since parents can easily reprogram the blocks using their phones to customize or change their meaning. At a technical level, the reading is very fast, as the NFC reader detects the blocks in under a second. We have included a low power mode similar to mobile phones, using the gyroscope, so the Ifs only try to read new blocks when they are in your hand.

This reminds me so much of IFTTT for the physical world and of course for kids. I really like the idea. 

You are right, there are already some similar apps and programming languages out there with the same logical basis. It is fairly normal, since these instructions are the basis of programming. Our cubes create a language which is similarly versatile, but does not require screens to program. The blocks have images and icons adapted for children 3 years old and above, so they can use them even if they can’t read yet.

We’ve heard in the intro that you worked on this project – together with your teammates – for more than 2 years. Can you outline the key milestones from idea to prototype and finally launching it on kickstarter? 

Once the idea was established, we developed our first prototype using a 3D printer and Arduino. The truth is that these first prototypes were not very nice to look at and we called them the “Frankensteins”, but they fulfilled their goal. Thanks to them we could showcase our idea, test them, and do workshops and activities with kids. During the second phase we contacted Diego Cidraque, our industrial designer, who developed the shape and functions of the blocks and each one of the characters. While we were improving the prototypes, we also designed the PCB and final electronics. We have also worked hard on the firmware, so the ifs operate properly and because we want to release it as free software for everyone to use and improve. After winning several idea and entrepreneurship competitions we paused development to focus on promotion and marketing, in preparation for the Kickstarter campaign. It’s taken over a year to have everything ready for the campaign, almost as much as it took to develop the product.

What has changed in this process?

It is funny how our desire to do a good job made us mull over every detail to the point that most of the time, after several iterations, we would go back to the initial idea. For example, during the first weekend working on the Ifs, we created square plastic prototypes, and then we tried out different materials and shapes. However, the final product is very similar to our first idea. The same happened with the characters. They started being a family, then animals, then objects, and finally ended up being a family very similar to the original concept. I’d like to highlight that all this work has been done with absolutely no private investment.

Unfortunately the funding goal of $200.000 was not reached – but more than 50% was reached – have you done some analysis what might have been the reason for this?

The crowdfunding campaign has been an incredible experience where we have learned a lot. We mostly tried to target the countries and cities where Kickstarter campaigns usually succeed. However, Spain focused most of our attention. In Spain we have managed to build reputation little by little, organically, while abroad we tried to reach potential backers with advertising, which is extremely difficult and expensive. Before the start of the campaign, we took this fact into account, and considered options such as localizing the product or seeking foreign partners to help with promotion.

What is the plan now – make modifications and then relaunch again? 

We want to try again. We are not sure when or how, but… We might launch another crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter or another platform, or look for private investors, or maybe even try selling the brand to a bigger company, although we wouldn’t like to let go of the Ifs. They’re kind of family. 

If yes, what will be the changes we can expect?

We are seriously thinking about making changes to the product, for example to make it cheaper, but this would definitely be at the expense of certain functions.

How do you think the Spanish education system is coping in these days of the corona virus – are there some promising and motivating examples and creative ideas that you saw people come up with?

All the schools are adapting as fast as possible to the new situation, training teachers and students, and trying to keep track of student progress and maintain a working routine whenever possible. This is especially hard with primary school students, which get distracted more easily and need help from their family to follow the classes.  A colleague’s wife whose been teaching with tablets and and using Google Classroom on a regular basis with her students, records a couple of 15-minute lessons every week and uses Google classroom to send and correct homework, and holds an online class to answer questions on the lesson videos or the related homework. Although some students are affected by the situation, most of them, due to the boredom of being locked at home, are working even harder than usual. So, generally speaking, we think the results are positive.

I think you’re all from Spain – so that’s excellent to ask some Spain-specific questions 🙂 What do you think is special about the Spanish education system and especially when it comes to the adoption of STEAM education?

The Spanish education system—I imagine the same applies to other countries— adapts and evolves, but slowly. For now, STEAM education is only applied during the first stages of preschool education in public schools, but it is not continued in primary education. At the same time, some private academies offer it as an extracurricular subject.

You’re also the co-founder of Makeroni – a non-profit organization to create digital craft projects with social impact. Can you outline the idea of Makeroni a bit and maybe describe a few of the recent projects? 

Makeroni was born from our interest in finding collaborators to create innovative projects that merge software and electronics to change society. We had been working on these types of projects individually, but with Makeroni we started collaborating and meeting new people that would join the project.

We have developed several prototypes we think are very interesting, but I will only mention two:

The first one is  a T-shirt for the visually impaired that gave them information on whatever was in front of them. With the T-shirt, they could find a door and walk through it, or identify an obstacle, learn its shape, location and distance to avoid it. The T-shirt had a 3D camera at the front, a matrix of vibrators at the back, and software that translated the depth captured by the 3D camera into frequencies and vibration intensities.
We took a prototype of this idea to one of the main organizations in Spain for the visually-impaired… But eventually it didn’t come to fruition.

The second one is a gadget we developed for a NASA contest. The gadget allowed astronauts to control electronic devices remotely by only looking at them. The project received an award, so we kept working on it until it was selected as finalist in the first UAE AI & Robotics Award, competing with prestigious institutions such as MIT, Stanford, University of California, Berkeley.

What will keep you busy the next weeks & months? 

Right now, we are taking a break from The Ifs, working on other projects, and recovering energy to come back stronger than ever. We hope it will be soon, but haven’t decided on a date yet. All we know is you will hear from us.

Awesome – thx so much for the interview and the great insights – I wish you all the best for the future and definitely let me know once you know what’s next – thx again & stay healthy!

Thx & the same to you, too!

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