Microsoft has today announced a new physical programming language called Project Torino. Created by Microsoft Research teams in Cambridge, UK, the language is a connecting tool for kids to build code. The company says the solution is for visually impaired children, giving them access to coding alongside classmates.

Project Torino is an extension and improvement over current easy coding methods. For example, children can be introduced to coding through tools that use drag and drop commands. This allows simple programs to be created. Torino uses colored pods to make code building simpler.

Microsoft Research says the new solution will help children who cannot see traditional methods well to join in within normal classes. However, researcher Cecily Morrison believes Project Torino will have an impact for all learners, not just the visually impaired.

“One of our key design principles was inclusion. We didn’t want to isolate these kids again,” she said. “The idea was to create something that a whole mainstream class could use, and they could use together.”

Morrison says computing jobs represent a huge opportunity to give children with challenges careers. Microsoft says Project Torino can also help to bridge a digital skills gap that technology companies say is increasing. A decrease in coders and engineers means more kids need to be turned on to a professional life in computing.

Giving visually impaired children a real platform to improve their career prospects is important. Microsoft says many partially blind people are left without work:

“The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people worldwide are blind or visually impaired, and the vast majority of those people live in low-income settings. In the United Kingdom alone, the Royal National Institute of Blind People says only one in four working age adults who are blind or partially sighted are doing paid work.”

Project Torino

The project has been in testing over the last year. Microsoft has used a small study sample of a dozen students. The system works by moving colored pods around, connecting them to make program codes.

Project Torino is focused on children aged 7 to 11. With the tools available, kids can learn programming concepts. The research team has created a curriculum for teachers to adopt the solution. Interestingly, educators will not need to have a history in coding to implement Torino in a classroom.

Working with children proved valuable through development. Feedback included children telling the team to make the pods colored (they were previously white) to make them easier to see.

“We really honestly designed it with them. It was a collaboration,” researcher Nicolas Villar said of working with the group of kids. “We thought we were going to be doing something for them but we ended up designing with them.”