Mime Industries are a local company that create build-it-yourself robotic kits, and people can use them to learn to code. To support the release of their newest product, the MeArm Pi, they ran a Kickstarter campaign that was quickly oversubscribed, with 852 backers pledging a whopping £56,376. We sat down with company founder, Ben Pirt; a man who’s very handy with robot arms...
The MeArm Pi is a robotic arm kit that’s designed to be very low cost, simple and fun to build, getting everyone learning about technology, engineering and programming. “It’s quite simple, but you can control all of its movements in a very repeatable way,” says Ben. “So, like its larger cousins, you can automate it to manipulate things.” By building the MeArm Pi and then programming this automation, you can learn to code.
The best thing about MeArm Pi is that you don’t need any experience in programming to get it working. “There are drag and drop programming languages that allow an absolute beginner to get started without getting caught up in typos and syntax errors,” explains Ben. It makes a change from the eighties when hours of typing in code from a magazine could be ruined by a colon accidentally being substituted for a semi-colon.
In fact, Ben talks about his own experiences learning programming back in the eighties, spending a lot of time using a BBC Microcomputer to move a turtle-drawing robot. “That’s what inspired me to try and bring back some of the excitement around learning programming in the eighties to the current times which, for a while, were focused on learning Word and Excel as a replacement for computer science,” he says. “Happily, things have improved massively in the past few years.”
Speaking about the successful Kickstarter campaign, Ben is obviously thrilled with the result. “You’re never sure how well it’s going to go, but it exceeded our expectations and will let us take the company to the next level.” They were able to build on the popularity of the Raspberry Pi and its existing user base. “It’s a wonderfully welcoming community who are passionate about helping kids learn.” The MeArm Pi isn’t just for children though; it’s been designed to be easy to build and be used by anyone.
Obviously, the big fear when anyone mentions robotics is that Terminator-like machines will eradicate the human race, but Ben isn’t having sleepless nights, and reassures us that “a Terminator built from perspex MeArms would probably be more hilarious than terrifying.” Apparently, the robot revolution is still a long way off, and while “there are serious concerns about artificial intelligence developing to the point where it surpasses human intellect,” Ben prefers to “take a positive viewpoint and believe that the impact on humanity will be a positive one.”
The future for Mime looks great, with more robots in the pipeline. “We’re trying to make sure they’re complementary so that when we do some work on one, the others benefit too; particularly around the software we use to program them.” Plus, he’s very excited to see what sort of new things people can do with their products and whether anybody can come up with something better than the “toothbrush helmet”; a device made by YouTuber Simone Giertz. She plonks a helmet on her head, with a robot arm attached to it that brushes her teeth in an impressive, albeit haphazard, way. Give it a search for a laugh.
Who knows? It may turn out that Arnie will end up cleaning our teeth in the future rather than trying to wipe us out.