Sphero have been making educational robots since they formed in around 2010 and what they do in the “creative play” space is pretty amazing. I mean, they make actual robots.
It all started with a robotic ball and then grew into multiple products, apps and a real connection with educators through STEM, helping students with disciplines in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Schools right across Australia are using these products on a daily basis to learn about robotics and coding using their imaginations to make the balls do more than even the creators ever intended.
Sphero has also enjoyed partnerships with massive brands like Disney, where they designed a whole range of working Droids based on the Star Wars franchise.
That was my first introduction to Sphero when I purchased the BB9E Ball Droid that featured in The Last Jedi and was basically the evil mirror version of the heroic BB8 Soccer ball droid.
The way it interacted with you even without the use of the special app on the phone gave the product life and just by holding it you can tell it’s made with quality parts and built to last.
So I got more than a little excited when a parcel arrived from Sphero for unboxing,
Inside was the new Sphero mini kit based on my favourite sport “Football” or “Soccer” depending on where you are from or even just what you prefer to say.
The lightweight ball is a repackaged Sphero Mini so it is roughly ⅓ the size of the BB9E droids. In the box comes the ball, a USB charging cable and a pack of 8 tiny coloured cones so you can practice drills and set up trick shots.
The smaller ball is a great idea, especially for kids who can just slip the ball into a pocket or a bag when off to play at a friends house. The larger cousins are pretty portable but not “pocket portable” like this.
The design on the ball is that classic black and white hexagons that you see on soccer balls. I discovered that you need to pull the cover off of the ball to charge it, it comes off very easily and I’d assume that this is also a great feature for if they decide down the track to do a deal with the Fifa or ADIDAS so you could buy official skins based on famous ball designs. Not saying they are doing that, just if I was them, that's what I’d be doing.
(watch the full review here)
In the “PLAY” app The controls take some getting used to, there’s a small dot light that lets you know which direction you are going and depending on the surface you are on you’ll find it easier or harder to maneuver around.
The slippery table surface caused some issues with spinning but when it spun off onto the short carpeted floor I had full control and was ready to be a robotic version of Cristiano Ronaldo. Some would argue after seeing one of his press conferences he’s already the robotic version, but his skill on the pitch is unmatched so we’ll let him off.
It’s fun coming up with games and ways to use the Sphero Mini Soccer, weaving in and out of the cones is a great starter to get you used to the control of the device, but then you’ll find yourself quickly evolving into “kick mode” which lets you control ball spin and strength to perform free kicks and penalties. There’s an extra pack you can buy with goals etc but you can just as easily put household items to use to create obstacles and goals.
There’s a feature in “PLAY” to use your robot as a game controller as well. So you can play their version of Asteroids or Car Racing that sit inside the app. This is good fun, but not the main function you would get one for.
Under settings you’ll see you can adjust the colour of the light projected from inside the ball. This is down the personal preferences and will help your robot to stand out when there are multiple devices in play. Here you can also adjust device speed which is a good idea to drop right down when you are first learning to control then gradually raise it up.
Face Drive is a feature that lets you control the device using the camera on your phone, It’s driven by your expressions and is super silly but at the same time amazingly intelligent.
Scream Drive, lets you steer with the on screen controller, but the more noise you make the faster you will go. I would avoid telling the kids about this mode at all costs.
Probably my favourite mode is the most educational and that is so out of character, but this robot makes learning fun. Block mode is in the PLAY App and lets you block out the movement of the robot using different direction instructions, you start by setting the dot point or your direction then add the various block directions or even choose different colours to change throughout your experiment. Set up a bunch of obstacles, plan out your movement and then press play and watch the magic happen. This is an even more simplified version of what you will find in the Sphero Edu app, so if you want the control that is more “Coding” focused I’d suggest using that.
This technology is incredible, the design is flawlessly elegant, especially when you remove the outer soccer ball layer to charge and see the inner workings. That is so important for young kids who want to know how and why things work the way they do. As more and more schools adopt this kind of device for STEM learning it’s great that there are entry level packages like this that won’t break the bank and provide every child with access to robotics in a fun, entertaining and educational way. Part of the real joy with a product like this is watching how everyone chooses to use it in uniquely creative ways.
I’ll give you the hot tip, there’ll be a few of these under trees this Christmas so get in quick. RRP is $89.95 but I've seen it as low as $69.
(this article was originally written for doccydarko.com and shared with permission)