Happy accident: Sphero makes the move from toy to teaching

Orbotix, now simply known as Sphero, had the world in awe when it introduced its smartphone-controlled, ball-shaped toy back in 2010. Back then, we were still getting used to the concept of "connected" things. Today, nearly four years after making its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sphero is one of the most popular peripherals around, on iOS and Android alike. But while the robotic ball may have started off as a knickknack for kids, or adults, to play with, it has recently started to break into another, more serious field: education. In an effort to boost that, Sphero launched an initiative called SPRK about five months ago, with the goal of letting schools adopt its product into education curriculum. Simply put, kids could not only learn about programming, but also have fun doing so.

The SPRK program, short for Schools Parents Robots Kids, is divided into two main segments: Core and Stem. Core is a series of lessons designed to help kids build their coding skills, both visual- and text-based. Stem, on the other hand, is the next step up for those who have mastered Core, offering a number of different challenges that let students experiment and build contraptions for Sphero. To assist with this, Sphero has two programming applications, available for iOS and Android; MacroLab uses visuals to get kids started with the learning process, while orbBasic is a more advanced, text-based language tool. By using MacroLab and orbBasic, students can, for example, program the Sphero ball to follow a number of custom commands, among other things.

Naturally, SPRK isn't only about the young ones, as parents and teachers also play a big role in the program. "Any teacher can teach this, even if they don't know robotics," Ross Ingram, Sphero's community manager, told Engadget. "It's easy for teachers to adopt it into a curriculum. It's instant gratification for kids -- they are able to see their progress instantly." And although SPRK is geared for third, fourth and fifth graders currently, Sphero's idea is to expand beyond those levels, all the way up to high school and college. As Ingram puts it, "Sphero can grow up with them. There's an SDK for iOS, Python, Ruby, so they can keep coding as they grow up."

"Any teacher can teach this, even if they don't know robotics."

At the moment, 250 schools have integrated Sphero as part of their education syllabi, both here in the US and around the world. One of the reasons so many schools have decided to do so is because they can buy Spheros in bulk for a low cost -- the company says it can sell them "at a cost of goods," which is likely a lot less than the $80-$130 each sphere costs via retail channels, depending on which generation it is. "We're already making money through our consumer channel, so it's easy for Sphero to explore," Adam Wilson, founder and chief software architect, explained. "As a robotics company, we can create other things to integrate them with this educational program. Our main goal is to teach kids stuff. This isn't our main line of business."

"It was a happy accident. We want to make a difference."

Sphero told us there were never any plans to make its robot an educational tool, but the approach from many parents paved the way to eventually follow that path. Essentially, the grown-ups thought it would be a great idea to take advantage of Sphero's fun attributes and, consequently, turn it into a training tool for robotics and programming. With SPRK now underway, Sphero wants to just embrace it, grow it and use it to make a dent in the educational world.

"It was a happy accident. We want to make a difference," said Wilson.

[Image credits: Sphero Education; Edgewater Echo]