Former Marine Uses Life Skills To Create Award-Winning Toys

Donald Coolidge, a former Marine, has made one of the most unusual career changes imaginable. After a stint in the corps, he now runs a successful toy company. Coolidge, who pictured himself working in law enforcement or government, now creates voice-activated artificial intelligence for robots that educate and interact with children.

His latest invention is Scout, which Coolidge describes as “a visitor obsessed with all things planet Earth,” who can engage with children at their individual age level by learning from them. Last week, Elemental Path, the company founded by Coolidge, which is based in New York City, launched a Kickstarter campaign for Scout, as part of its CogniToys product line. The company hopes to raise $50,000 by December 7. The campaign, which still has 27 days to go, has already raised nearly half that amount.

CogniToys is no mere start-up though. The company has already won a Parent’s Choice Award, was a finalist for Toy of the Year, and made TIME’s 2015 “Best Inventions of the Year” list, alongside the hoverboard scooter and the Tesla Model X. Coolidge himself has also been acknowledged for the “Best Use of AI in Education” by the Global Annual Achievement Awards for Artificial Intelligence.

Strange as it may seem, Coolidge, 32, says he’s using many skills now he learned during his nearly 10 years in the military. While in Iraq, he worked with drones, biometrics and population mapping “using cutting-edge technology the entire time,” he says. “All these things got me excited about technology in general and how it can be used, which directly impact my work in the technology field now.”

Also, the military emphasized leadership and critical thinking skills that benefit him as an entrepreneur. “You set out to accomplish something and just because one obstacle or one hurdle gets in your way … it doesn’t mean you stop. You have to still accomplish that mission.”

As for Scout, the robot reacts to children’s emotional state as well. If a child is feeling angry, sad or anxious, Scout may make a joke and engage the child in meditation exercises to calm them down. “We baked the educational aspect into the entire experience. You may ask a question about the moon and you get an answer to it, and (Scout) may follow up with a fun fact about the moon or ask you if you want to play a game or story about outer space,” Coolidge says.

“Kids are already using screens probably more than they should, and Scout is all based on that verbal aspect to get kids thinking and talking and communicating,” Coolidge says. “Removing the screen, it creates this really amazing experience.”

Scout has been designed for kids aged 5 and up and uses AI to learn about children in order to speak to their level. Priced at $149.99, Scout is seven inches tall and resembles a tiny astronaut. The robot includes a speaker and microphone, flashing RGB lights on its visor, a round button on its belly and touch sensors, so it knows when a child picks it up, as well as a light sensor that detects when a room is dark, which may indicate bedtime.

RELATED: This Interactive Robot For Kids Is Not Afraid To Express Its Feelings

As a safety measure, Elemental Path ensures that any data the robot gathers for personalization is secure and protected by military-grade encryption. For more information on Scout, check out the Kickstarter campaign here.

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