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Robots, drones and virtual reality: a day at BETT

Usborne Digital Editor Matt Bugler on the new educational technologies displayed at the BETT exhibition:

Every year companies big and small from around the world come to London to show off their newest creations in the ‘Edtech’ sector at the BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) Show. Edtech, or education technology, is all about using latest technologies – from virtual and augmented reality to coding robots and drones – to enhance learning in the classroom.

Along with Usborne stalwart Lisa Watts, I attended the exhibition to learn about the latest technologies that may be used in schools and become part of children's lives, and – who knows – maybe even in books. With nearly 1,000 different companies and start-ups packed inside the hall all vying for your attention, it was an intense and enjoyable experience (if slightly overwhelming at times).

We started with an obvious choice: the Google stand where we encountered the first of many AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) programs. Entering a virtual reality is as simple as downloading an app on your phone and slotting it into the headset.

Having a go at Google AR
Having a go at Google AR

Interestingly, it seems the trend in Edtech is moving away from the VR world of 3D dinosaurs (which can grow stale after the novelty is over) and more into AR, which can be much more easily integrated with education. Augmented reality brings the computer visual into real life (think Pokemon Go!) and encompasses everything from moving a selfie stick around to see a Roman ship in action, to bringing characters on a page to life.

Remote controlling a robot
Remote controlling a robot

A robot from BETT
A robot from BETT standing tall

Testing my basketball skills with the interactive board
Testing my basketball skills with the interactive board

Unsurprisingly, robots were a key feature of BETT, and with the return of Robot Wars to TV I’m sure many children are interested in building and controlling their own robots. I can confirm that there was great satisfaction in remote controlling a robot to pick up a ball and launch it across the room, even if I had nothing to do with coding it! I’d also have liked a go in the mesh cage instructing a drone to follow pre-coded instructions such as ‘move forward’, ‘flip 180 degrees’ and ‘pick up brick’.

With Usborne an official partner for the UK Government’s 2018 Year of Engineering, we’re very interested in ways of showing children how creative and exciting science and engineering is.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping stall at BETT was the Bloodhound Project – a 13m long supersonic car which will travel at over 1,000mph when completed. It’s a huge project with an enormously complicated engine and body – but aside from attempting to break the world land speed record, the aim is to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers, with visits to schools and lessons based on the project.

What was particularly interesting at BETT was how technology can be applied to other school subjects. The start-up Emoji-Go-Music is developing an app which could make learning music far easier for children with special educational needs, by using emojis, colours and touchy-feely pads on the keyboard. There was also room for physical education: I had a go at throwing a basketball at the moving lights on a giant interactive board, which was both fun and a solid workout.

The man from Emoji-Go-Music
Kevin Thompson (aka The Dynamite Dyslexic) from Emoji-Go-Music

Lisa’s been going to BETT for over 20 years, and remarked on how much it has changed with new technologies, 3D printers, maker spaces and robots. There are some concerns that children are being swept along by screens and technology too early in their development – but when you see the enthusiasm and joy on adults’ faces as they code programs and travel to virtual worlds, you feel we can’t ignore the opportunities that new technologies can offer.

Matt Bugler

Tags: edtech digital publishing technology

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