Marty the Robot from Robotical – a review of this lovely educational robot

In 2016, Edinburgh-based Robotical introduced their robotic platform, Marty the Robot. Successfully funded through a Crowdfunding campaign, the robot has now been updated to version 2, via another successful campaign, and is now available to buy from their online shop. Robotical sent me a Marty to have a play with and look more closely at the product and, vitally, the (frankly) dizzying array of resources available on the website.

Retail packaging

First of all, I was blown away by the retail packaging for the product. The box is solid, held closed by a magnet and substantial, not to mention colourful as you can see above. The rear of the box is informative and contains ideas for how you will use Marty to explore robotics.

My Marty review unit (which I need to return, so I’m going to be completely honest as I get no long-term benefit!) came pre-assembled, but it was easy to see the way the interior packaging had been designed to house the kit parts and the completed robot.

As you can see, Marty sits in the packaging on the right hand side with a piece of foam to pack the cavity out. On the left hand side is a pocket for the Quick Start Guide (thank goodness!) – they’ve really thought about the fact that kids, with the excitement of getting Marty, will want to crack on. The box does say that the product is designed for 10+ years with adult supervision, but the educational material (which I will cover later) goes down to 8 years old, allowing for children whose intelligence is slightly ahead-of-the-curve.

Movement cards

Also included in the box (though I think these are available to be purchased separately) are a set of robotic movement cards. These intrigued me – what were they for? Then it occurred to me – they are ideal for “unplugged” action mapping.

The users could use the cards to map out a series of movements without touching the programming side, work out what they want Marty to do, and then program the robot to do their bidding. A very good idea, especially if you’re sharing a Marty in a large group of kids. Some can get straight into the programming, others can use the cards, then they can swap. The cards are in bright, solid colours so if one added a Raspberry Pi to Marty and a camera module, one could do some OpenCV programming and literally “follow the cards”.

I realised, later, that Marty has a colour sensor on his foot – these cards are actually usable as tools without doing any programming. Ingenious! You just need to use the colour sensing blocks in Scratch and then place Marty on them or you can just put Marty in colour-sensing mode by pressing the A button and then he’ll just move according to the cards. How clever is that?! There’s even a worksheet that covers this.

Getting the robot out

Marty comes easily out of the foam packaging and stands freely:

It has very good balance because the feet are big enough! This robot has character. It reminds me a little of Spongebob Squarepants in colour scheme. There are a bunch of stickers to use on Marty, but I didn’t because they need the unit back, but I can see that this would be a great thing for those more artistically, rather than technically, inclined to get involved with the robot.

First steps

I referred to the Quick Start Guide to get going:

The first thing to do was to insert and connect the battery. This was easy – a couple of clips hold the back of the head on and then the top comes off. I was slightly bewildered initially until I realised that the entire battery component, including the plastic case, needed to go into Marty. That’s just me over-thinking things, though, I think!

Next, I turned it on (yay, they pre-charged the battery!) and matched the indicator lights to determine that the battery had enough “juice” to play around with. It did, so next I downloaded the app from the Google Play Store for Android onto my phone. I made sure Bluetooth and Location Services were turned on as implied by the Guide and then started the app. I scanned for Marty robots and… Nothing. Nothing appeared. I tried a few more times at different distances from the robot, but it wouldn’t find it for some reason. I checked the Bluetooth scanning manually through the phone and, sure enough, there was a Marty waiting to be paired. Curious. Then, I remembered the old programmers question:

Have you tried turning it off and on again?

So, I disabled Bluetooth, waited two seconds and turned it back on again. This time, the app scanner picked up my Marty and paired with it. I ended up on the app dashboard. There were a few options here – remote control; calibration; programming with Scratch; update firmware. I thought I’d start with the remote control and, sure enough, pressing on the buttons in the app caused Marty to move about.

I was immediately struck by how good the movement was. They’ve clearly chosen some excellent servos for the job and everything “just works” in a very fluid way.

Calibration enables you to manually manipulate Marty into a “ready” position (arms straight down, legs straight and nothing bent, eyebrows straight across) and then record that position for later use.

The firmware update requires you to plug Marty into a USB socket for power and then wait while the update occurs. I didn’t need to bother – after all, Marty was already working, but I thought I’d see how long it took. The answer was: about 10 minutes for the over-the-air update. Not bad, considering.

Next up was programming in Scratch. I’m always a little apprehensive about Scratch (being from a text-based programming background) but I needn’t have worried. Even with my rudimentary Scratch knowledge, I was able (on my phone, no less!) to program Marty to do a sequence of movements based on the blocks provided.

Everything was very self-explanatory and it was, indeed, possible to do it using my mobile phone. In class, of course, phones tend to be banned, so you’d likely be using a tablet, which I expect would work even better, with a larger screen.

Resources, so many resources!

First of all, be aware that there are two sites for Marty the Robot – version 1 and version 2. I had version 2, so I started here, on the version 2 “Learn” site. I fed back to Robotical that having the multiple sites, and then having a further, separate site for the Knowledge Base, makes the experience feel a bit fragmented. The UI and fonts, for example, change depending on which site you are on. They’ve told me that they’re just about to start the process of unifying the resources and the look-and-feel, so that’s great news.

For educators the Learn site is fantastic. There are individual Lessons and grouped Lesson Packs for using Marty in the classroom. Each resource lists and explains the Curriculum areas it is aimed at:

… so with enough time to look around the Learn site, teachers will be able to find resources to hit specific learning points. It’s all very well-organised and structured for educators on the Learn site – there are the resources themselves, PowerPoint slides, Teacher Guides. I suspect that with a class set of Martys, teachers could fill at least an entire term if they wanted to!

Taking Marty further

This being a Raspberry Pi blog, it would be remiss of me not to mention that you can fit a Raspberry Pi into Marty! The Pi is screwed into the lid of Marty and then a cable used to connect the Pi to the RIC control board. You can take a look at the guide for doing this here. It seems quite a simple procedure.

Once you’ve done this, having prepared the Pi’s SD card beforehand, of course, the Pi is powered by Marty through the RIC board, so you don’t need to worry about a separate power supply. This does reduce the onboard battery’s usage time, though, of course. There are then lessons, beginning here on how to use Python on the Raspberry Pi to program Marty. You will need to make sure you’ve got a Pi 3 or Pi Zero W as the Pi 4 is not supported for some reason.

I ran out of time at this point, and didn’t have a spare Pi to hand, but you can see a demo video of the Marty working with the Raspberry Pi below:

See Marty in action

If you want to see Marty in action some more, take a look at the video below. It was for their Kickstarter (which is now successfully finished) but gives a real feel of the product and the people behind it. It also has a fantastic shot of Marty walking off a table and surviving the fall – it’s a robust little animal is Marty!

 

Free trial

If you are in Education and you would like to try Marty out for a couple of weeks, Robotical can arrange delivery and pick-up and also support you through the trial. All you need is a short call with them to arrange it. Take a look at this page on the website for more details and to book a slot.

Conclusion

A bit of history, first. Way back when, the first model of Raspberry Pi had been around for a little while and there was a Kickstarter campaign for a robot called Rapiro. It was a robot, driven by servos, with a Raspberry Pi in its head connected to an Arduino-alike controller board. It was twitchy, the servos weren’t up to much and calibration was a nightmare.

Marty the Robot gave me similar worries when it was on its way to me. Would it be difficult to use? Would it stand up to punishment? Would calibration be something from which it would never recover?

I’m pleased to say that Marty exceeds expectations as far as all these questions are concerned. Apart from that single Bluetooth connection problem (which you might not even come across – it might have just been my phone!) and the concern about fragmented documentation and resources which they are already addressing, it hits the spot as far as robotics in education is concerned. It is easy to use in the first instance – you can have a play right from the off by using the app on a tablet/phone and just moving the little dude about using remote control. That’s before you even get onto the more complex Scratch-based programming and, eventually, adding a Pi and using Python. It has quick wins all the way along. As evidenced by the video above, and from a short Twitter conversation I had with another trial user, the platform is robust and, if it’s treated with a child’s care, it should stand up to repeated usage. Calibration of the platform is easy, using the app, and it is so different from Rapiro in terms of twitchiness – it just doesn’t twitch and bounce at all. The servos are metal-geared, too, so the animation of the robot is smooth and these motors will last much longer than plastic-geared servos.

Now, let’s talk about price! Marty the Robot v2 is £314 plus VAT. This seems a little on the high side, but of course you’re buying not only the platform but also the resources to go with it. There are class packs, too, which are obviously more as you get more than one Marty. Looking at £314+VAT for a minute, though, just for the single, this is just about in reach of those who would like to buy it. I would like to see it more like £250 including VAT, personally, but then I am not privy to their development and ongoing costs. Is Marty worth that kind of money? A qualified yes. If you have the budget to stretch to buying a Marty, or even a class set of the robots, then it is well worth the investment as it should last you a long time. The resources are excellent, the platform is great.

What more can I say? I want one! 🙂

2 comments for “Marty the Robot from Robotical – a review of this lovely educational robot

  1. I purchased a Marty 1 from Kickstarter when it was first proposed. The idea is great but I have got to admit I have never had much success with it. That is probably me, I added a PI and camera and could not get it to work properly. I am waiting for my grandson to take over and sort me out!

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