Bluetooth robots inspire creativity

Sphero is a bluetooth controlled sphere, that weighs just under half a pound and is about 4 inches in diameter. The little ball was first developed in 2010 by two friends, who created the company Orbotix, now known simply as Sphero. Since then, the company has grown tremendously. In 2013 they developed Sphero 2.0, a better, faster, and smarter version of their original robot. In 2014 they released a more cylindrical version of Sphero that runs on two rubber wheels, which launched as “Ollie”. Later in 2014 the company launched SPRK, a ball almost identical to Sphero, but designed for the classroom, to help students learn about programming. Towards the end of 2015 to go along with the movie “The Force Awakens”, the company released a Sphero toy designed to look just like the Star Wars droid BB-8.

I was lucky enough to get to play with one of the 5 Sphero’s the school has during my help desk time one day. Mr. Ashley simply picked one up from its inductive charging base (a curved holder that starts charging your Sphero as soon as you place it in it, no cords needed), tapped it twice to turn it on, handed me and a friend one of the schools iPad mini’s, and let us drive it down the hallway. Since Sphero is a perfect cylinder, you can’t tell which way is forward and which is backward. One of the first things Mr. Ashley taught me was how to adjust the “tail” to face you, so you could easily calibrate and control it. The other thing he taught us was how to easily adjust the speed in 10% intervals (reaching a max speed of over 4.5 mph), simply by tapping the hare, for faster, or the turtle, for slower. The rest we figured out on our own.

While Sphero can pretty easily do figure-eights around desks, it sometimes has trouble getting through doors, and that proved to be one of the first challenges for us. We had lots of fun racing it down the hallways and seeing how fast it could go, but the real fun started when we realized Sphero do so much more. Sphero is as much a device as it is a game. By simply fooling around with the iPads we discovered that it had a feature called quests. We didn’t look too much at this feature. We only looked at the first 3 quests it displayed for us. These quests allowed us to have more fun but also taught us some new things about Sphero. One of the first quests required us to bump into three objects within 10 seconds, teaching us that Sphero was very durable. I was very intrigued by the toy and asked Mr. Ashley if we could take them into the elementary MakerSpace. I knew Sphero could go fast and roll around, but I wanted to see what else we could make it do. Armed with cardboard shoe boxes and paper cups I had the goal of creating a bridge for Sphero to walk across. Creating the bridge was almost as challenging as getting Sphero to cross it, which was my original goal. The first problem we ran into was Sphero crashing into the paper cup support system. We fixed that by taping the cups to the cardboard platform in the middle which served as our main bridge structure. The next problem we ran into was the cardboard not being strong enough to support the Sphero. We also found that I had made the ramp too steep for Sphero to climb. We managed to fix both of these problems by changing the height at which the ramps were angled. After attempting to successfully cross the bridge dozens of times and only succeeding once I realized I had achieved my goal of creating a pretty impossible bridge. Having this goal completed I wanted to move on and see what other obstacles we could make. I wanted to create a complex maze for the Sphero to travel through. We didn’t exactly have access to materials capable of constructing the maze I had in mind, so I use pompoms to make an outline of a maze. Very quickly I discovered that this would take a lot longer then I had originally thought it would, so I quit. After cleaning up the pompoms I looked around the elementary library where we were working and saw we already had a maze. I noticed we could use the row of 3 bookshelves as obstacles in a race course. I challenged one of my other classmates and the Sphero they were using, to a race, but this also had unforeseen problems. The bookshelves served as great obstacles to maneuver around, but they made it hard to see where your Sphero was going. The easiest solution to this problem was to follow your Sphero around, but that created more problems of blocking your opponent and their Sphero. 

Ever since Mr. Ashley first showed me Sphero I’ve been deeply fascinated by this little toy. I’ve never been super interested in engineering or robots, but this guy has got me hooked, and I can’t wait to continue designed obstacle courses and completing quests, all while learning more about technology!

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