In 2013, Alex Klein, Saul Klein and Yonatan Raz-Fridman launched a Kickstarter campaign for a codeable computer kit. The device was powered with a Raspberry Pi and was as simple to build as Lego. It raised over $1 million dollars from 13,000 backers and 18,000 kits were shipped to customers within one year.
Kano has since launched build-your-own speaker, camera and screen kits and this week it launched the Pixel kit: a £74.99 computer made out of lights, sensors and a circuit board.
Assembling the product takes just a few minutes. Once it is built, the device can be hooked up to any computer and programmed via a web app to create games, animations and light shows. It can be coded to light up in response to sounds or to display live data feeds such as the local time or weather. Users can also draw a picture on their computer and the design will instantly appear on the device. They can then add frames and change their design to create animations.
“For us this kit isn’t just about coding – it’s about making art, it’s about making games,” says Kano co-founder Alex Klein.
Kano had the idea for the product after releasing a ‘power up’ pack for customers who purchased its first Computer Kit. The kit came with a new master board and an LED board. Kano also created an app called Light that could be used to programme the LEDs. The app was fairly simple but it proved popular with Kano’s community, with people using it to create animations and dancing characters. Klein says this led to the idea for a kit that would allow people to control light “in a new, expressive way.”
The company began developing prototypes and testing them with children. It received “amazing” feedback – particularly the feature that lets users paint with light. “You could just do that on a screen but when you bring it into the physical world, it’s really entertaining,” says Klein.
The Pixel Kit introduces children to programming and animation. Through creating displays, they learn about frames, loops, sequencing and randomness. Maths teachers have even used it to teach children about co-ordinates. As with all of Kano’s products, it brings coding into the physical world and encourages learning through play.
Kano is based in Whitechapel, East London. Its HQ – a small two-room office behind a coffee shop, with a makeshift meeting room constructed from leftover boxes for the brand’s first product – is home to 60 people from 22 countries.
Klein founded the company with Saul Klein and Yonatan Raz-Fridman after discovering the Raspberry Pi while studying at the University of Cambridge.
He worked in journalism before enrolling at Cambridge and was a reporter at Newsweek and Daily Beast, where he wrote articles on Mitt Romney’s tax returns and the Occupy movement. Around 2012, Klein became disillusioned with the profession. He had travelled across the US investigating an alleged real estate scam run by the Church of Scientology but says Newsweek refused to run the article for fear of being sued. Klein left the publication and moved to the UK to do a Master’s degree in politics. Newsweek shut its print title soon after and the article ended up in Buzzfeed.
While studying at Cambridge, Klein was introduced to the Raspberry Pi and a growing community of hackers and digital makers. “I got a peek into this nascent maker movement and I started to realise that although there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm around beginners learning to code – makers and hobbyists and homebrew hackers – it really wasn’t accessible to most people. I found it impenetrable.”
Spurred on by his six-year-old cousin (who wanted a computer he could build himself) and his own experience of learning to code, Klein teamed up with his co-founders and raised funding for a kit that would give people “a glimpse inside” physical computing – something that “would let people of all ages, all over the world make their first computer and code it themselves”.
Kano has since shipped DIY kits to people all over the world and raised over $15 million in funding. Its average user is around 10 years old but kits are popular with people of all ages. “We’ve had people as young as four build and code the original computer, and as old as 81,” says Klein. “We had a teenager in Sierra Leone use it to build a radio station … a girl in Kosovo build a solar panel, and a family in Oklahoma build a timelapse camera to capture flowers blooming…. The accessible price point of the kit as a computer also yields a lot of cool projects,” he adds.
Over 30 million lines of code have been generated using Kano products. People are encouraged to share what they have created through Kano World – a platform that lets them post their creations and view and comment on others’. “I describe it as a kids’ GitHub [an open-source development platform popular with coders],” says Klein. The platform is a source of inspiration both to Kano’s customers and the brand – “we get a lot of inspiration from what people are sharing,” he says.
All of Kano’s products are designed in house, though the design team – made up of just eight people – worked with Map Project Office on packaging and the industrial design of plastics and components. Kits are housed in colourful boxes and accompanying instruction books feature cheerful illustrations. The designs have proved popular with children but they are created with people of all ages in mind.
“There are three principles that govern our design: the first is simple storytelling and simple steps…. If you break things down, and lead people from breadcrumb to breadcrumb, it doesn’t matter how complex the underlying task is, their natural curiosity will propel them through,” explains Klein.
The second principle is physical computing – “we want you to feel the chips warm up under your fingers as [the product] comes to life,” he adds. The build process is crucial to helping people understand how computers work. Handling components makes people feel less intimated by the device in front of them and through building the product in stages, they come to understand that a computer is just a kit of parts – one that can be built, taken apart and reassembled. “The build – at least for us – is a relatively short experience but it’s a really important one,” explains Klein. “It makes you feel powerful, like ‘I can do this’.”
The third principle is a sense of play. “It’s hard to boil down what makes Kano’s design, I think, so striking and effective, but I’d say we want to keep it real. We don’t want to obscure, we want to give you access to something that was once closed and I think people of all ages appreciate that,” adds Klein.
Creative storytelling is at the heart of Kano’s mission to demystify computing. One of the pre-installed apps on its Computer Kit is Terminal Quest, which introduces users to Linux commands through an interactive narrative set in a fictional town named Folderton. The narrative unfolds as commands are issued, triggering messages and ascii art. It’s an inventive way to help children and adults remember basic commands such as ls, cd, mv, nano and echo.
“Most people look at [the Computer Kit] and think ‘cool, a build your own computer experience’ and that’s got us very far, but it’s the software on board that drives the engagement,” says Klein. “In their first month on the Computer Kit, users spend on average 13.5 hours – that’s close to what people spend on Snapchat.”
Children are closely involved in product development at Kano. They are invited to the studio each week and the company often runs workshops in schools. It also runs free workshops for anyone who asks. “It’s very useful for us,” says Klein. “We try to test [products] primarily on first timers, rather than people who know Kano already, because that first ‘what is this?’ is a really important moment for us to untangle.”
Klein’s background in journalism has proved useful for creating products that are accessible to all – Klein is well-versed in breaking down complex stories and can look at computing and coding from an outsider’s perspective.
“I think a lot of people in tech don’t understand how exclusive and insider the words they use are, and I think if you look at the devices we use, they’ve been built intentionally to keep people out,” he says. “We’re the first computer company built end-to-end to do the opposite, so you can look inside. For us, it’s not just about giving the next generation a cool toy, it’s about actually changing the way that people of all ages relate to technology as active participants, and not just passive consumers. We’re building real computers here, real tools, not just toys.”
We have a closer relationship with computers than ever before – most of us carry one around in our pocket, and many of us now wear them on our wrists. But as devices become increasingly minimal – with mechanics hidden underneath sleek casing – we are perhaps getting further away from understanding how they work. Kano is hoping to change this and Klein believes there is a real appetite for more affordable products that give users more control.
“I think people are hungry for something new in computing,” he says. “What is Apple giving us? They’ve got these billions of dollars on their balance sheet and they’re giving us bigger iPads or smartphones on wrists.
“People are a little bit tired of the flat homogeneity of modern consumer electronics I think,” he continues. “For Kano, the goal was always to achieve an Apple level of polish and humanism but with a Google or GitHub level of openness, transparency and modularity. And it was previously thought of in technology that you could only do one or the other – you could be beautiful, or you could be modular – [but] I think now, with these low cost components, new manufacturing methods in China and open-source code available to all, with open content available on YouTube and other platforms, you can fuse the two.”