Microsoft researcher Matt MacLaurin came up for the idea for Kodu in his kitchen in the fall of 2006, noticing the way his three-year-old daughter watched her mom browse away on Facebook. MacLaurin saw how different computing is now than when he was a kid. While his Commodore Pet was like a lump of clay that he could mold by writing software in Basic, his daughter's generation is using computers whose functions are already set in stone.
So he set about creating a new developer language that would appeal to the current generation of kids. He settled on one that would work with just a game controller, using basic rules to do things like move an apple across the screen.
A few months later, the idea was working code. MacLaurin had created Boku, an all new programming language that could be run on an Xbox using only the console's controller to craft basic logic. MacLaurin showed it at the 2007 TechFest internal science fair and later that year at an emerging technology conference.
"That's just in our DNA," MacLaurin said. "We don't really trust something until it is on our screen."
Kodu, the final name for Boku, got its big-time debut in 2009, when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed the program, as part of his keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Now, Microsoft is bringing Kodu to the PC.
MacLaurin said the company had to do a fair amount of work to make Kodu work with a mouse as opposed to the controller. Most of that work is done, he said, but the company is releasing the PC version of Kodu as a technology preview to get more feedback before declaring the release final.
Already in its current form, Kodu has found its way into 200 schools and there have been more than 200,000 downloads of the free software. MacLaurin said moving the tool to the PC and mouse will allow schools to use it without needing any special hardware.
The software has also become popular in his own home, where he and his daughter work on Kodu tasks together.
"We use it together," he said, noting that at 5, his daughter is still younger than the 9-year-old age at which kids really start gravitating to Kodu. What he likes, though, is the logic skills it teaches her and the kinds of questions it creates in her mind. "It's an opportunity to have conversations you don't really have in other settings," MacLaurin said.
MacLaurin, who worked at Apple for five years, left after working on the Newton to form his own company and joined Microsoft in 2003. After spending most of his tenure in Microsoft's research labs, he recently moved to become part of Lili Cheng's Fuse Labs project.