When Developers Are Parents

Understanding robots and families at THAT Conference

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that conference
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So, once upon a time, there was a robot, a huge conference in the great Wisconsin outdoors, more than 1100 professional developers, and over 300 kids. Welcome to THAT Conference. As described on the conference website, THAT Conference is: SUMMER CAMP FOR GEEKS™

Can you say “CamelCase”? Friendly fauna were frequent and family-appropriate visitors. Photo credits: THAT Conference (Instagram)

With over three days of both professional and family-friendly sessions, Misty had a near-constant stream of visitors of all ages to our booth during the conference. And those kid-robot-parent interactions were pretty telling. They took one of three forms:

  • Kids and Parents both into robots. These were the most enjoyable interactions. Typically these would play out with the child rushing over to touch, poke, or prod Misty and the parents following close behind (often apologizing for the exuberance of their offspring). Then, robot-loving credentials established, the whole family would engage in a conversation that ran the spectrum from hyper technical (do you find performance issues with a runtime environment running on the robot?) to use cases for teaching robotics (can it teach my kids how to program?). We’d talk through business uses and home uses and teaching uses, while their child interacted with Misty. Win-win-win.
  • Kids, not parents, into robots. This is the really interesting thing if you’re a robotics developer. MANY times it was the child who led the parent to our booth. There were a good number of enterprise devs at the conference who just didn’t have robots as software platforms in their awareness yet. Their kids, though, immediately saw Misty as a friend and companion. Several kids came by multiple times a day to see Misty. One child took a single look and literally ran over to give Misty a hug. And in all these cases, the kids drew the parents in, and you could see the light come on in the parents’ eyes, as they watched their child engage with Misty.
  • Parents, not kids, into robots. Joking — this never happened. But it was the case that the best interactions (see above) where when the parents were into robots and engaged with Misty together with their robot-interested kids. We’ve seen similar things with our work with the FIRST organization — when adults and kids are both exploring robots, amazing things happen.
The great outdoors can sometimes look a bit more like a conference hall than you would think, but the availability of electricity was appreciated.

What does all this tell me?

  1. Kids are hugely, naturally, emotionally invested in robots.

2. There is an enormous opportunity in child-related services for all of us in the robot (and robot software) industry. What’s more engaging to a child than a smartphone or tablet? A robot.

3. Most importantly, that we’ve got a real responsibility. We, in the robotics industry need to make robots that live up to kids’ expectations in terms of robots being trustable, emotionally positive presences in children’s lives.

P.S. While our time at THAT Conference was all too brief, I’m grateful that I did have the chance to sit down with Clark Sells and #AskTHAT and have a discussion about Misty Robotics and the industry in general:

During each of his sessions Clark asks the question “What does Community mean to you?” To me community is about moving things forward in a positive direction for all of us. And I think THAT has done an excellent job of cultivating a place where people can let their geek flag fly and be surrounded by those who want to collaborate and dig into those shared interests. Check out the rest of the community’s answers at THAT Twitter account.


When Developers Are Parents was originally published in MistyRobotics on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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