Sphero turning from toys to home robots
The company behind popular connected toys is turning its attention to robots designed to help out around the home.
Sphero is responsible for creating the toy version of BB8, based on the Star Wars character, along with other robot toys such as the Ollie and Spark and the original Sphero ball.
The company's latest connected toy is the Ultimate Lightning McQueen, the racing car that's the star of the Cars movies.
While the "toys" can be used as toys, they are also intended to teach people about technology, including coding.
Coming up with a compelling idea that will find a place on the Christmas wishlists of kid(ults) of all ages required that a lot of work and inspiration.
Sphero's chief technology officer Ian Bernstein said he drew on his childhood for ideas.
"Sphero came from a 3am discussion between my Sphero co-founder (Adam Wilson) and me in early 2010. We knew we wanted to make physical things that connected to the smartphone but we didn't know what.
"We had looked at tons of the more obvious things like door locks and lights but I said, 'what if we just made something simple, something that you could keep in your pocket, pull it out and throw it on the table, and it did something cool'.
"Then Adam said, 'what about a marble?' I thought back to this robot ball I had built when I was a kid and thought, 'what about a robot ball?'"
A lot of kids dream of making their own robot buddies. For any kids wanting to move into robotics, Bernstein recommends using one of his own products to develop basic engineering and programming skills.
"I would recommend the Sphero SPRK+. It's a super fun way to get into programming and engineering. Beyond that, there is a board called the Arduino that you can use to hook up your own lights, motors, and sensors with tons of tutorials online."
Building his own robot saw Bernstein drawing inspiration from science-fiction television show and movies. Unsurprisingly, Bernstein is bullish about a future that has robots in our homes.
To help make that happen, Sphero has formed a new company, Misty Robotics which aims to release its first product next year.
"Our initial robot that will be out next year is the first step towards our big goal but will still be capable of doing a lot of useful tasks around the house and office for things like safety, security, entertainment, or just being your little robot friend," said Bernstein.
"Our big vision is to create the 'Rosie' from The Jetsons, a cartoon I grew up with. Rosie is a robot that becomes part of the Jetsons family and not only does useful things like cleaning the house, cooking food, and running errands but is also a friend and companion that just hangs out with them, like you would with a good friend.
"In the future I see a household owning a single multipurpose robot like Rosie that similarly does both useful things and can hang out" with you. Since motors, batteries, and other electronics you need to make a robot are expensive it makes sense that we'll have a multipurpose robot like this instead of having many single purpose robots."
Bernstein said the biggest challenge was designing a robot that people would actually want as a member of their households.
"We can leverage a lot of our learnings from Sphero but designing a friendly robot you want to bring into your home with your wife, husband, kids, pets, etc takes a lot of thought."
Two technologies that are going to play a critical role in creating family friendly robots will be artificial intelligence and machine learning, said Bernstein.
"AI and machine learning are really exciting technologies for us in the robotics industry. There is the physical robot that can move around and interact with things in the real world but the brain of the robot is using a lot of the principles of AI and ML.
"Progress in those industries definitely helps us. AI to help shape the personality of the robot and ML for things such as visual recognition of objects, like a cat or a couch."
Making matters even more difficult is the limited range of skills of most home robots. Some trundle around and remind you of appointments while others, like iRobotics Roomba, do the vacuuming. Making one robot that can do it all is still a work in progress, said Bernstein
"Some things like cooking are quite difficult so the first wave of home robots likely won't be able to do those types of tasks. Like a lot of new technologies, we have to start small and move up.
"Likewise, you won't find our first robot in your local store. We will instead be looking at developers and enthusiasts."