When I was about ten years old, I didn’t want to include a cute alien robot out of batteries* but in those days, you could expect to find a toy under the Christmas tree that looked like a robot and something The beeping noise was forced.
Fast forward to last Christmas, though, and my dream of owning a totally adorable robot has finally come true. After watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the sixth time, I decided to ‘treat my husband’ to BB-8. And while the dogs were distinctly unaffected, we’re sure there was an explosion that rocked the little guy.
Yet when I was sent a SPRK+ for testing (I love the job) I didn’t immediately realize it came from the same people who made BB-8. As it turns out, Sphero has been making tiny round robots for quite some time, ever since he graduated from TechStars Accelerator in Boulder, CO in 2010.
Like BB-8, Sphero’s latest ball-bot is on an important mission: teaching kids to code. The company has sold more than a million robots in 80 countries to date, but the SPRK+ is designed to be their most tinker-friendly and hardwearing robot yet, with a scratch-resistant, waterproof outer shell that makes it a good bouncing can take.
While it’s not exactly cheap—the SPRK+ retails at around $130—the fact that you can buy your own robot and program it for less than the cost of buying a fancy pair of shoes is a testament to that. That’s how far technology has come from my childhood.
What I love about it – admittedly as someone with limited technical skills – is that you can casually start playing straight away. Tap the ball on your phone and the app automatically syncs the devices. The transparent outer shell lets you see what’s going on inside the robot, and you can drag and drop modular puzzle elements into different sequences to do simple things like change colors or roll in different directions .
However, for those who want to dig deeper, the sky is the limit. With over 150 learning activities, you can enjoy a host of programmable features like sound effects, LED lights, sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes.
There is a healthy global community of users who collaborate on projects through the Lightning Lab app that works on iOS, Android and Amazon Fire devices. It lets you easily share programs — using Sphero’s own programming language called Oval — as much as you would on GitHub, which is great for building real-world programming skills.
David Millage, general manager of education at Sphero, says that the beauty of the SPRK is that it teaches all kinds of valuable 21st century skills, cleverly disguised as games: “Learning is evolving and we learn in the classroom. Seeing a transition from consumption to creation.. Our robots are being used to teach everything from art to physics in a fun and practical way that takes students to a whole new level.”
I never tire of preaching the gospel of coding, because as much as not everyone can be good at it, we should all learn as much as we can about the technology that turns the world around. If nothing else, it’s great exercise for your brain, and with things like Sphero, it’s also great fun. After all, who wouldn’t want to build their own solar system? And BB-8 also enjoyed meeting her new friend: