Earlier this week, I came across a news report from the BBC Technology news website about a software tool for writing simple computer programs that can control the behaviour of animated characters on a simple digital stage.
The tool - known as Scratch (as in hip-hop music, rather than itch!) - was developed by the MIT Media Lab, home of Professor Mitchell "Mitch" Resnick, who also played a major role in the development of the Lego MindstormsTM robot prototyping system.
Like the robot programming software Mitch developed, Scratch uses the idea of plugging instruction blocks together - like computer instruction construction bricks.
The blocks can be used to control the behaviour of different animated characters, moving them around a simple stage, changing their conversations, and even playing sounds. Control blocks also allow the programmer to morph photographs and control animated characters using inputs from the keyboard - or even your computer's microphone.
You can see some examples of what Scratch can do - as well as how to write simple Scratch programmes - in this "Scratch facilitorial" the team posted to youTube.
You can also see a demonstration of how to use the Scratch application in this BBC interview with Mitch Resnick.
Scratch looks like a children's computer game - but I achieved more from playing with it for 20 minutes than I have in years of tinkering on and off with more powerful (= complicated and hard to use) applications! Twenty years ago, tools offering the ease of use and functionality that Scratch offers would have been regarded as the state of the art in computer animation. Today, they're just "kids' play". And maybe that's part of the problem with finding tools that can be used to teach adults to write computer programs? Strange as it may seem, the child-friendly look-and-feel may well act against the wider uptake of this application.
Just as adult literacy books are different to Ladybird books, and the covers of 'adult' editions of Harry Potter books are more discreet than the covers of the teen editions, maybe Scratch won't take off as an "computer programming literacy" tool in quite the way it could if it looked rather more austere?
The primary colours and cartoon characters won't stop me playing with it though (and I use the play word advisedly! :-)
So if you've ever had the itch to write a computer program, or create you own computer animation, why not Scratch it now?
You can download Scratch. It runs on Macs and PCs, and won't cost you a penny.