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Sphero SPRK: The robot ball which teaches you how to code

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Written by Charlie Osborne on
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8.0

Sphero SPRK

Excellent
Like
  • Attractive design, engaging applications and great potential for use in education.
Don't Like
  • Perhaps too expensive for full classroom adoption.
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Many people have seen Star Wars and remember the cute robot, BB-8, which accompanied the heroes on their quests. However, BB-8 then became the inspiration for a droid toy for children which could be controlled through a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.

The toy may have been built for entertainment purposes, but has since evolved into the Sphero SPRK, which uses components BB-8 is built upon as a way for users to learn how to code.

What is Sphero 2.0 SPRK?

The Sphero SPRK is a robotic ball which takes the mechanisms used to control toys such as the BB-8 droid and uses them as a way to teach children -- and adults -- the basics of coding. Over one million units were sold in 2015 alone.

Sphero 2.0 SPRK stands for "Students, Parents, Robots and Kids," and thanks to app connectivity and a teaching platform, the robot does what it says on the tin. Sphero can not only be used at home as a way to gently introduce children to code but also can be used as a valuable teaching tool in schools worldwide.

Design

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The Sphero SPRK is, in one word, cute. This might seem like an odd adjective to assign to a translucent ball of components, but there is something oddly adorable about it.

The components within, which are all clearly visible as they react to commands, are protected by a durable polycarbonate shell which can withstand knocks and bruises without a problem. A main strength of the device is that children can see what their commands do visually in as the ball responds -- whether it be jumping, moving in a particular direction, or dancing.

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This is likely to keep kids occupied for far longer than staring at a blank screen and using a keyboard to learn how to code.

Children can also customize their Sphero to light up through LEDs in their favorite colors.

It doesn't take long for scratches to appear, but as with any toy that is being directed into obstacles, you expect it to happen -- and they are not apparent unless you look closely at the transparent casing. An additional bonus is that little fingers cannot open the ball to poke around where they shouldn't be and potentially damage the gadget.

Setup

In order to setup your Sphero SPRK, you gently tap the ball twice ("Wake up!") to start. You then need to download the accompanying Sphero app and pair your smartphone or tablet to your robot through Bluetooth.

(Considering the robot's controls, a tablet is recommended for this stage rather than a smartphone with a smaller screen.)

After your mobile device has found and paired with Sphero, a firmware update will take place if necessary. You can choose to go purely for the Sphero app which is entertainment-based to start if you wish to let your children learn how to operate Sphero before diving into coding -- or you can also download the Sphero Lightning Labs app as an accompaniment.

Performance

The ball is able to zip around on your floor at speeds of up to 4.5mph. While this doesn't sound like much, when the robot is bashing into walls and performing kicks and spinning in different directions, you'll realize it is actually pretty fast. Sphero's movements are far from clunky and can provide plenty of entertainment, as the Flamenco below shows.

The Sphero operates well on wooden floors, but will need to be tweaked to a slightly higher speed setting to function properly on carpet and rugs.

To charge Sphero, you place the ball on a sloped charging platform and plug it in. The toy uses inductive charging to power up and can be played with for approximately an hour of heavy use before needing more juice.

Functionality

The main app teaches children about Sphero's capabilities through a mission-based game. The game is based on the premise that Sphero needs to save "Planet Spheron" by gaining experience and powers, which requires the user to complete missions based on movement, controls and learning tricks to accomplish.

This game on its own is highly addictive and entertaining and is likely to keep children engaged for as long as the battery lasts. However, to add the learning element, you also need to download the Lightning Lab application.

Sphero's Lightning Lab acts as the platform for coding and projects, whether in a classroom setting or at home. You can sign up as either a student or teacher in order to write code, share work and participate in collaborative projects.

Teachers who sign up are also able to assign activities and perform class management.

The workshop implements a C-based language called OVAL to get children involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at an early age. The programming language does not need any prior experience to learn and begins the educational process gently by asking children to drag and drop blocks in the app to control functions including speed, direction and color changes.

As users become more advanced, they can also explore "if this, then that" actions, such as "if speed is or is greater than 40, set color to red," or "if roll, set speed to 20."

Tapping a specific icon in the app shows the underlying text-based commands and codes in OVAL, which learners are able to explore as and when they wish.

Lightning Lab comes with 12 default tutorials to get children started, and users can also explore the community for additional projects, ranging from setting up autopilot to maze games.

Verdict

Learning to code can seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you don't know where to start. However, the development of toys such as the Sphero SPRK removes the uncertainty and fear by engaging users in a fun but easily understandable way through gradually building on visual knowledge to introduce coding basics.

Who knows -- if your child enjoys coding with Sphero, they may later decide to enter STEM and graduate to more advanced programming languages such as Python or C++.

On its own, Sphero SPRK is a fun, engaging toy which is likely to keep both kids and adults entertained, but its true strength lies in the educational value of the spinning, dancing robot.

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