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Apple's Swift Playgrounds will make robots and drones dance

Starting Monday, kids can learn to code for more than just iPhones and iPads.


Apple's updated Swift Playgrounds app will let kids code for robots and drones. 

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of WWDC 2021. All the latest coverage from Apple's annual developers conference.

A drone hovers about 3 feet above the long wooden table. A man holding a shiny iPad Pro types something on the screen, and the drone suddenly flips over backward then comes to rest on the table's surface.

Next, a small gray robot with blue pants and a green top starts dancing to Psy's "Gangnam Style," mimicking motions displayed on the iPad's screen.

I'm in one of Apple's sleek employee cafeterias, Caffè Macs on Alves Drive, down the street from the company's old headquarters in Cupertino, California. I'm here to see updates to the company's Swift Playgrounds, an iPad app for learning the Swift programming language. The software teaches kids (and adults) how to code for iPhones and iPads. And starting June 5, it will work with third-party drones, robots and electronic musical instruments, too.

"It combines coding with robotics in the physical world, which is something that's very different from what we've been able to do before," Cheryl Thomas, Apple vice president of software engineering operations, told me Wednesday during a meeting with reporters. "We couldn't be happier because we have a full ecosystem now. That was something we knew in the very beginning we were setting out to do."

CNET got an early look at the updated Swift Playgrounds app ahead of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. Apple uses its annual confab to introduce its newest software and, sometimes, hardware. This year's event is expected to be jam-packed with news about Apple's operating systems, Macs and voice-enabled Siri smart speakers. CEO Tim Cook will kick off the week with a keynote at 10 a.m. PT on Monday in San Jose.

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Developers use Swift to write apps for Apple's iOS, MacOS, WatchOS and tvOS software. In the three years since its introduction, Swift has been used to build about 250,000 apps in the App Store -- including those from Airbnb, CNN and Yelp. (For comparison, there were a total 2 million apps in the App Store as of last WWDC.)

Apple announced Swift Playgrounds at WWDC last year to get kids excited about coding. The free iPad app teaches basic coding skills for making animated characters do things like collect gems. Commands typed on the left side of the screen, for example, will show a one-eyed blob with legs wander around a field of brightly colored gems.

A lot of coders "learned at a time computers were simple," Tim Triemstra, product manager for Swift Playgrounds, said in Wednesday's meeting at Caffè Macs. But computers later became more complex, and programming got difficult. Apple sees Swift Playgrounds as a way to put the fun back in programming.

"This will fundamentally change the way people are looking at coding," he said. "I'm learning these concepts and having fun doing an activity."

Used by more than a million unique active users, according to Apple, Swift Playgrounds is now available in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and "simplified Chinese."

"Kids need to learn to code," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi. "It's not like they all need to go and be programmers and app developers. But those underlying problem-solving skills that coding teaches are going to be very important in life."

Back to school

Apple's targeted the education market since the Apple II days. But in the past few years, Google has become the king of the classroom with the Chromebook -- a cheap, stripped-down computer that runs Google's Chrome OS software -- as well as lesson plans and products for teachers and school IT administrators. Swift Playgrounds helps Apple counter Google's education offensive.

Kelly Croy, a seventh grade reading and language arts teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School in Ohio, uses the app to teach an after-school robotics class.

Several third party device makers, including LEGO and Sphero, have activities kids can use to learn to code in Apple's Swift Playgrounds.

James Martin/CNET

"As a teacher, I'm trying to get [my students] to understand that coding is part of what makes all the really cool things in the world really cool," Croy said. "They get a taste of that when they're using the Swift Playgrounds app … and now they get to use it to interact with robots in the physical world."

While Apple's pushing iPads in education, they aren't exactly cheap. It gives students $20 off the price of iPads, but its cheapest tablet starts at $309, even with the promotion. Drones, robots and other similar tech also can be pricey, despite education discounts. For some school districts struggling to make ends meet, purchasing enough iPads for students can be tough.

Kasia Derza, who teaches kindergarten to eighth grade STEM classes at Mariano Azuela Elementary in the Chicago Public School District, has used donation sites to raise money for devices for her classroom. Even though her school isn't wealthy, she has 34 iPads in her classroom to share among 38 students, as well as robots from Sphero and Wonder Workshop.

"In one day, I had a project funded for a device I wanted in my school," she said.

Swift Playgrounds version 1.5 marks the first time Apple has worked with third-party device makers for the app. Some -- like Parrot and Wonder Workshop -- previously made their own experimental activities that Swift Playgrounds users could download from their websites or via Twitter.

That drone I saw flying was a Mambo drone from Parrot, one of the companies collaborating with Apple on Swift Playgrounds. And the robot was a Jimu Robot MeeBot Kit from UBTECH.

Other companies working with Apple on Swift Playgrounds includes LEGO with its Mindstorms Education EV3 robots; Parrot's Airborne and Rolling Spider drones; Skoogmusic's Skoog tactile cube that lets kids create music with their hands; Sphero's SPRK+ rolling ball robot; and Wonder Workshop's Dash robot.

"Education's in our DNA," said Susan Prescott, Apple vice president of product marketing for apps, markets and services. "Those aren't just words to us. It's really been important to us to figure out how technology can transform teaching and learning in the classroom."

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