Tech Spotlight: Chris Harden & Jeremy Scheinberg

Trobo the Storytelling Robot and its animated lessons.

Chris Harden (bottom photo, sitting) and Jeremy Scheinberg have high hopes for their huggable, educational robot.

Roberto Gonzalez

Fourteen months ago, while attending a local Startup Weekend for entrepreneurs pitching tech ideas, two former Orlando engineering co-workers happened to bump into each other.

Jeremy Scheinberg was presenting a programmable-robot project. Chris Harden had an idea for a cell phone app that could be configured to silence the ringer in churches and movie theaters. Comparing their ideas, they came up with a new one. Both decided to abandon their other projects and join forces to design an educational robot doll that leads kids ages 2 through 7 in animated, interactive tasks with an iPad application.

Brainstorming sessions with mentors led to the last letter in robot being moved to the first, and Trobo the Storytelling Robot was born. With the help of other tech community programs such as Starter Studio and Canvs, Trobo has grown up fast.

Today, Scheinberg and Harden are in the midst of developing a set of plush, huggable Trobo dolls—male and female versions named Newton and Curie—that narrate interactive, animated math and science stories. They explore subjects such as “How Is Honey Made?,’’ “What Is Gravity?,’’ and “How Do I Count Money?’’ Children use the iPad to follow along with the help of their very own talking doll, and they become characters in the stories.

The project evolved from the two engineers’ desire to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills for kids. Both are fathers of young children.

”A Trobo can bring a lot to a child that’s not shoot ’em up or aggressive,” Harden says. “It’s about using your mind and learning.” Adds Schein-
berg: “There are good [interactive learning] toys for kids age 10 to 14, but not for young kids. We want to create that level of appreciation for science and engineering.”

With working and supportive wives, Harden and Scheinberg, both 40, quit their six-figure-salary jobs, then spent three months at the Starter Studio mentoring and business incubator. The two later posted Trobo demonstration videos on YouTube and raised $61,000 through an online Kickstarter campaign. In return for contributions, donors could pre-order discounted Trobos and T-shirts.

“To me, it’s a new and improved Teddy Ruxpin,” says Starter Studio classmate Rudy Ellis, 38, operator of Orlando video streaming firm Joicaster, and also a Trobo Kickstarter donor. Teddy Ruxpin became a popular, talking animatronic doll starting in the 1980s, reading stories on a cassette tape embedded in his back. Teddy later became a cartoon show.

Harden and Scheinberg travel around Orlando and the state demonstrating their robot-learning system and work out of the new Canvs co-working space in downtown Orlando. Their plan is to ship a Trobo and five interactive stories for $60 starting in November. The engineers also recently received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study developing a proposed school curriculum that incorporates Trobo.

Both have worked on projects for entertainment and storytelling giants Disney, Legoland and Electronic Arts. Harden is the animator and has a background in short films and comic book illustrations. Scheinberg is more of the manufacturing and doll designer—and the deep-voiced narrator of Trobo history on YouTube marketing videos. Three teachers and 60 parents serve as reviewers of Trobo content and vocabulary. The engineers also have ideas for a movie and a TV show.

Harden says planting “early seeds” are key to child development. His wife helped care for a sick grandmother as a child. “That made her want to be a doctor,” he says. “Early seeds, man. That’s what it’s about.”

Scheinberg, a father of two, says 6-year-old daughter Sophia is a “font of ideas” for Trobo stories, ranging from the origins of lightning to how the human body works. 

Sophia also has a grander idea, he says. “She wants to build Troboworld.” 

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