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Girls can learn to code with the help of this new smart keychain

imagiLabs CEO Dora Palfi wants to give girls coding "superpowers" to help close the gender gap in tech.

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- 04:16
imagicharm1

The imagiCharm is the first product from imagiLabs. 

ImagiLabs

It's no secret that tech has a gender gap problem. The number of female computer scientists has dropped more than 10% since 1995, with many girls losing interest between the ages of 13 and 17, according to Girls Who Code

To get and keep more girls interested in coding, a female-led Swedish startup called imagiLabs is launching a smart keychain and app that teaches young women to learn to code in a fun, gamified way. 

The imagiCharm smart keychain is a little smaller than a makeup compact, with an eight-by-eight matrix of 64 LED lights. It's meant to help users visually customize designs with lines of Python code input into the imagiLabs mobile app. The app is available on iOS, and testing is underway for Android. You can still download an early access version for Android. (I found the app's privacy policy and terms of service agreement to be concise and understandable.)

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A look at the imagiLabs app interface. 

ImagiLabs/Screenshot by Shelby Brown/CNET

The imagiLabs app teaches the basics of coding, so you can learn to make creative images like flowers, animated color gradients, animals and emoji. The app connects to the imagiCharm via Bluetooth, so you can display your project on the go with your keychain.

imagiLabs CEO Dora Palfi said she realized the disparity of women in the tech industry early on in her own tech career. Keeping young girls interested in coding can open future career opportunities and help them better succeed in an increasingly digital economy, she said. 

"If women aren't part of tech, then we can't utilize tech to solve our problems," Palfi said. 

Over a video chat, Palfi explained the importance of community support for women in tech. This is what she wants to build for girls with imagiCharm.

The superpower of coding

In the imagiLabs app, you can view other users' projects -- some involve scrolling text, while others are solid blocks of color, hearts and shapes. One user even coded an animated Pikachu. You can leave positive comments on other people's projects, and try to recreate their creation for yourself. 

The app raised more than $60,000 on Kickstarter last year. Last year, in the app's first 30 days live, imagiLabs reported 400 shared coding projects -- representing over 25,000 lines of code. Palfi says the company's long-term goal is to build a social network for girl coders.

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imagiLabs' founders (left to right): Beatrice Ionascu, Dora Palfi and Paula Dozsa. 

ImagiLabs

Under the Learn tab, the app walks you through coding a heart. imagiLabs uses gamification to help users understand how a line of code relates to the picture you're making. The lessons cover turning on the pixels, assigning and making colors for your project. When you complete a lesson, you level up and earn a "superpower." 

"Coding is a superpower," Palfi said. "You're getting these superpowers that you can use to create things and solve problems."

Palfi demonstrated how imagiCharm works over the video call. When she "woke" the device, the imagiCharm's interface opened its eyes, which stirred nostalgic memories of the early Tamagotchi. Palfi connected her phone to the Charm via Bluetooth and uploaded a code project. Almost instantly, the imagiCharm displayed the picture. Any changes she made in the code from her phone translated to the Charm, and updated the image on the keychain.

The imagiCharm ships globally, and can be bought individually ($78, £62) or in a two-pack (US $148, £118). The company also offers a Premium imagiCharm ($98, £78) and a Premium two-pack ($171, £136). The Premium Charms include 12 hours of learning content that users can access via email. 

imagicharm-test

I felt incredibly proud of myself when I tried out the imagiLabs app and found that I understood the concepts. Here's a look at my first few practice codes in the Learning tab.

Shelby Brown/CNET

Palfi said users don't need to have to have a Charm to use the app, which is free. In addition, she said the company is working on hosting coding competitions where users can try and win a Charm. imagiLabs is also exploring working with companies to sponsor Charms for girls who might not be able to afford them. 

The imagiCharm and its app are meant to be a mix of fun and challenge with an emphasis on positivity and learning as a community, Palfi said. "You should just have fun with it -- it's not about making it perfect," she added. The instant feedback can also help you learn and course correct quickly. 

The community is the backbone of the whole project, Palfi said. Users encourage and compliment each other's projects in the comments sections, and program digital "gifts" for each other. There's a sense of excitement when others try out your project. It's a welcoming space where it's easy to learn, and feel comfortable doing so. 

"Get creative," Palfi said. "Make it your own and don't be afraid."

Read moreFemale tech VIPs on how to thrive in the digital world

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