what is a sphero?

sphero’s SPRK+ has transparent shell

Sphero is a very interesting and original idea. It is marketed as a connected toy that can be remotely controlled and programmed. But it is the only such toy that abandons the movement on wheel model. It also has inductive charging, which is necessary as the water proof shell of the ball doesn’t allow any opening to be plugged into an electrical outlet.

Well, the wheels still exist, but they are located inside the ball. When the wheels spin, the shell spins, as if a small animal is running inside its exercise ball:

This same idea can also be seen in Jurassic World’s Gyrosphere vehicle:

…and its Lego version (which doesn’t move):

the gyrosphere as available in some official Jurrasic World sets

The no-outlet constraint dictates that Sphere only works on wireless connection, which unfortunately means bluetooth at the moment.

The earlier version of Sphero needs to be paired and connected manually, which is quite an annoyance if not a serious drawback on its classroom application. Young learners have to wake the ball first, and then navigate to setting/bluetooth and select the appropriate device to pair. The new version, SPRK+ adopts bluetooth LE (also branded as bluetooth Smart) alleviates this problem by automatically establishing connection based on extreme proximity.

Suppose you have in the classroom 10 balls and 10 iPads, how do you know which one is paired to which? One solution is to give them different shells; a more practical one is to number them and then number the iPads accordingly.


The Basics

As a ball as no inherent direction, in order to direct its movement, one needs a visual indicator of its heading. This heading is implemented in Sphere in the form of a tail-light, a blue LED that will light up when you aim it. Then you drag it toward you, so now your directions are perceptually aligned.

There are plenty of apps that do interesting things with Sphero. But know that the newest SPRK+ works only with the official Lighting Lab app (most likely due the new bluetooth protocol):

a simple program that rolls forward and back

This interface is not exactly kid-friendly as its color palette is centered on nuanced cold colors. But it is not cluttered or awkwardly designed either. The right side of the screen is not efficiently utilized. Compare this to Dash’s implementation of Blockly:

this program makes no sense

The available blocks are placed on the left; that’s a good use of otherwise wasted space. And the font is made even more visible as they change to either white or black according to the background. Excellent visual design!

The Lightning Lab app offers a potentially useful feature: showing the code underneath the blocks:

The same program in OVAL code

Oval code is fashioned after C but supports less data types such as pointers, structs. There are also two other languages available to Sphero developers: Macro, and OrbBasic.


Once built, Sphero programs can be easily shared with the community. There are also some official programs one can learn from. All this obviously learn from Scratch. I didn’t see the same thing with Dash’s Blockly.

My programs, Sphero’s, or community’s

Curriculum

To make sphero a learning tool for a certain age group requires considerable imagination. Having searched for pedagogical material I must say I am a little disappointed at what is currently available. But that should be the learner’s work, not the teacher’s.

What exactly can be done with this ball? I still need to try out a lot of things. But here are some general comments, which address Sphero’s unique design and consequently its strength and weakness.

  1. Most robotic kits have two components: engineering and programming. This is because the robot may need some assembly and here lies in its inexhaustibility of form. Sphero doesn’t have that. It is already shaped and this shape cannot be altered. Therefore there is no engineering part involved. Unless you make Sphero a part of a larger engineering work: i.e., to make sphere drive a car or a boat.
  2. Precision of movement is an issue with Sphero. This is especially true when your ground is smooth. Even on carpet floor it needs some distance to brake.

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