Play-i raises $8M to teach the iPad generation how to code one pint-sized robot at a time

Kids know how to unlock a touchscreen before they can walk.

Bo gives a friend a flower

But will they learn how to code?

Vikas Gupta, the co-founder of Play-i, which is announcing an $8 million round of funding from Madrona Venture Group and Charles River Ventures today, thinks he’s come up with a way to make computer programming fun for the five-year-old-plus demographic.

The Mountain View, Calif. company’s first round precedes Play-i’s initial delivery later this year of the adorable blue robots, which can be programmed with an iPad and other Bluetooth-enabled devices.

The company’s mission is not Gupta’s exact area of expertise.

For seven years, Gupta worked at Amazon, first living in Seattle and then moving to India to help open the e-commerce giant’s offices there. In 2006, he moved to the Bay Area and started Jambool, a virtual currency company that Madrona also invested in. It sold to Google in 2010, and Gupta later led the consumer payments group at the search giant.

Teaching kids how to program may prove easier than getting consumers to use their phone as a wallet.

When Gupta joined Google, it was attempting to replace a consumer’s charge cards with a tap of their phone, but the case was made difficult when only one carrier agreed to adopt the technology and near-field communication was slow to take off.

Right as things started to get tough, Gupta left Google in January 2012 to spend time traveling with his wife and six-month-old daughter. The experience left him inspired: “The problem captivated me how children would be learning to program in coming years,” he said. “What’s the best way since kids are going to have devices in their hands? How then do we enable them to learn programming?”

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Gupta started tinkering with prototypes, and at the end of 2012, Play-i was born.

In total, the company has raised $9 million from equity, and another $1.4 million through a crowd-funding campaign. An earlier seed round was also raised from Madrona. The crowd-funding dollars will go to delivering the first batch of robots this year, and the financing will go towards hiring.

Gupta said they did a lot of research into what age kids can start grasping programming concepts, but one key element was keeping costs low.

To start, Play-i has developed two characters: Bo and Yana. Bo is slightly more expensive and can do more tricks than Yana. The animated robots can move across hardwood floors or carpet; are strong enough to push things, like toy blocks; and can be programmed to tell stories, like one robot handing another a flower.

Packing that much functionality into a price point sub-$200 was important. “Products have existed before now, but they were very complex. A parent would open a box and lots of pieces would come out, and then it would go back into the closet. We had to make it fun; we had to make it something a lot of people are interested in; and not too expensive.”

But normally with robotics keeping costs low often means minimizing functionality. “The way we get much lower is by using touch devices over wireless technology to reduce the complexity,” he said. “In bringing the price down, it’s not that we compromised what they can do. It’s done differently.”

That could be a huge selling point for parents, who feel they may have already sunk hundreds of dollars into tablets and other wireless devices that their kids are already using for non-educational things, like playing games and watching video.

The company is also building out a software platform that will allow other developers to build programs for it.

Bo is available for pre-order for $169 and Yana costs $59, a bundle of the two together costs $228. An accessories pack, including the iPhone mount, costs $39. The company promises to ship before Christmas.