SoftBank Robotics America today announced the launch of Tethys, an integrated development environment designed to teach coding skills. The SoftBank Group Corp. unit said the visual learning software enables students to program its Pepper humanoid robot in real time.
Tethys is named after the Greek patron goddess of streams as part of SoftBank’s STREAM (science, technology, robotics, engineering, art, and mathematics) education program. The integrated development environment (IDE) is intended to encourage young people to pursue technology careers, said SoftBank.
The company added that Tethys is its first standalone software product and the latest milestone in its educational initiatives, which include Nao and Pepper. SoftBank Group acquired the humanoid robots with Aldebaran in 2014. Banks and retailers are also using Pepper, as well as SoftBank’s Whiz cleaning robot.
“SoftBank Robotics works to augment the workforce through automation, and with Tethys, we’re continuing our work to make STREAM careers accessible and inviting to all students,” stated Kass Dawson, head of STREAM education at SoftBank Robotics America. “With financial support through SoftBank Group’s Pepper donations and our STREAM social responsibility program partners, that accessibility is exponentially amplified for under-served students.”
Tethys Teaches Robot Programming
“We’ve had success with Pepper and Nao as educational tools. Colleges were using a program called Choreograph to program and use them, but it was created more for demonstrations and can be tricky to use,” Dawson told Robotics Business Review. “We wanted to create a more stable tool that was tied to a curriculum and could showcase all of the robot’s capabilities, so we created an avatar of Pepper to interact on a tablet.”
Tethys is designed to simplify the coding experience, bridging the gap between visual programming and full script development, said SoftBank Robotics. Regardless of their computer science background, students can program Pepper using high-level boxes and wires that correlate to robot and programming actions.
“With the block-based system, they can connect actions and dialogue,” said Dawson. “You can click into it to see the actual coding.”
Programs run either on a virtual robot directly in the browser or on the physical robot. In the process, students can learn the principles of computer science, as well as Python.
“In programming classes, students typically write lines and lines of code and then get an error message,” Dawson said. “With Tethys and Pepper, you can get immediate audiovisual feedback.”
“Students can do actions through the avatar and see all of the interactions on screen first,” he added. “Previously, they had to wait for a turn with the robot.”
SoftBank Robotics has partnered with Finger Food Advanced Technology Group (ATG), a Vancouver-based software company, to develop Tethys.
“Partnering with SoftBank Robotics to create a program that empowers students, many of whom have no history of coding, to explore and expand upon their technological skill set is incredibly fulfilling,” said Ryan Peterson, CEO of Finger Food ATG. “While STREAM tools are becoming increasingly available to educators, Tethys stands alone by leveraging the power of a robotics ambassador like Pepper. Whether in a virtual or live setting, Pepper and Tethys create greater engagement in STREAM activities and inspire more students to explore technical careers.”
SoftBank Donates Through STREAM Social Responsibility Program
In December 2018, SoftBank Group donated more than 100 Pepper robots to the San Francisco Unified School District and Boston Public Schools. Tethys has been installed on all deployed robots, and more than 1,000 students are currently using it in 21 schools in Boston, San Francisco, and Canada’s Coquitlam Schools (D43) near Vancouver.
“For schools that already have Pepper, Tethys is an upgrade,” said Dawson. “The tools are relatively easy for teachers to use. It’s less of an issue of understanding and more about getting them comfortable with the curriculum. Some teachers have given feedback, and more teachers are signing up to use it.”
“Kids actually using the tool to teach others, so the student becomes the teacher, augmenting the teachers,” he said. “For example, a class spent the first half of a day on laptops. Then Pepper was rolled out for the second half of the day, and the kids were getting the robots to dance and use idioms they would use.”
“It’s a unique tool to help kids stay engaged and to help with confidence building,” Dawson said. “It also increases the reach to young women and more diverse populations for STREAM careers.”
With the debut of Tethys, the SoftBank Group is donating Peppers to match donations of software licenses through its STREAM social responsibility program, which opens to new partners today. At launch, the combined value of donated humanoid robots and Tethys software licenses in schools totaled over $2.1 million.