Mission control: Hack this capable robotic rover

From the company that brought BB-8 to life, a sensor-rich mobile robot you can program.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A company that makes programmable home robots for kids and, well, nerds who love playing with robots (ahem ...) is launching a ready-to-drive, fully programmable robotic rover. The launch announcement comes after a much-watched $1 Million Kickstarter raise in February

Sphero, the company behind the robotic rover, which it calls RVR, will be familiar to fans of robotic ed-tech. Best known for its delightfully fun BB-8 drone, the company made its name creating robotic orbs that kids could program and drive themselves. 

RVR, which has four wheels and looks like a miniature version of a machine you might bump into on Mars, is a departure from Sphero's spherical roots. In the hyper-competitive ed-tech space, which is home to programmable toys of all shapes and sizes, versatility and functionality is king, so it makes sense that Sphero decided to include some appendages for its newest creation.

"When we launched RVR on Kickstarter earlier this year, we were blown away by the response," said Adam Wilson, Sphero co-founder, and Chief Creative Officer. "Our community of makers, developers, and teachers all rallied around RVR to make it a huge success even before they could get their hands on one. RVR has significantly extended our reach to makers of all ages, and all coding abilities. We can't wait to see what everyone creates with RVR."

With RVR, Sphero is taking a swing at capturing the holy grail of toys: One that will grow with a child. RVR, which is drivable out of the box, is designed to expand and change based on the user's skill level. Makers use the Sphero Edu app to code RVR in various forms based, starting with Draw & Drive, progressing Scratch blocks, and finally offering full hackable functionality via JavaScript modes.

The question is whether Sphero can convince parents that this is the ed-tech toy they should get their kids. At $250, it's not exactly cheap, and it's unlikely you're going to find multiple programmable robots in a kids' toy chest. 

Sphero is trying to up the glamor factor with features and functionality. RVR is exceptionally nimble, for example, with a high-resolution motor encoder that allows for agility and accuracy you won't find in the average RC car. Capable of handling most terrain with its treads and high-torque motor, it should capture some envious stares in the sandbox.

But the real beauty of this robot is how hackable it is. RVR's Universal 4-Pin Expansion Port can connect to third-party hardware, such as Raspberry Pi, Micro:Bit, Arduino, or other hardware capable of communicating over UART. Like all of Sphero's products, users have access to the company's EDU app, which enjoys an active community of DIYers and educators. Also available are a variety of SDKs for popular platforms like Raspberry Pi, MicroBit and Arduino, as well as low-level API documentation so more advanced users can connect to any platform they like.

RVR's launch comes on the heels of Sphero's recent acquisition of littleBits, the company that invented the electronic building block. With RVR, Sphero is trying to firm up its standing as the programmable toy to beat in the ed-tech space.

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