Here’s why we need to stop thinking about toys like Sphero’s BOLT in terms of ‘teaching kids to code so they’ll have jobs’

Adam Wilson – when play becomes your job. Picture: Supplied

On paper, it looks like Sphero, the maker of the toy BB-8 droid, has been doing it tough in 2018.

The breakout toy of 2015, the smartphone controlled BB-8 was so popular it was reported to have single-handedly lifted the entire US toy industry.

Sphero – the company – got a proper jolt, too. BB-8 sold out and staff numbers soared. New deals were struck with Disney to release more smartphone-controlled movie tie-ins such as Ultimate Lightning McQueen, R2D2, BB-9E and a connected Spider-Man “companion” toy.

Opportunities like that don’t come for a four-year-old startup twice.

But amongst all that, founders Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein only had time to release a single update to the ball that started it all in 2011, bringing out the $US49 Sphero Mini in 2017. And as it turned out, demand for the movie tie-in toys – some of which commanded a shelf price of up to $500 – didn’t quite meet expectations.

Wilson told Business Insider the partnerships with Disney were “hugely beneficial” for Sphero, and they were “humbled to have been able to work with such an amazing company”.

“We we were able to learn from the best in the business in terms of making personalities come to life,” he said, but added Sphero doesn’t currently have any new licensed products in development.

“That doesn’t mean it will never happen again,” he said.

There have been some repercussions at Sphero’s HQ in Boulder, Colorado. In January, the company laid off about a quarter of its 170 employees.

But on the positive side, it has allowed Sphero to get back to what it does best – teaching kids about how stuff works. And right now, that means getting into classrooms all over the world, and partnering up with another industry giant, Facebook.

The company’s return to form begins with a major upgrade – Sphero BOLT:

BOLT – it might the world’s most advanced ball.

The most visible new feature is that 8×8 LED Matrix, but inside, BOLT has a much bigger battery and new ambient light, compass and infrared sensors that allows it to understand and adapt to the world around it.

For the uninitiated, the original Sphero ball and Rollie are robots you can control with your phone, and it’s instantly addictive. Here’s a pivotal moment in the company’s history when then US President Barack Obama was ambushed on campus by the founders back in 2011:

In 2015, while BB-8 was stealing the spotlight, Sphero released an edition called SPRK allowed kids to program the ball.

Wilson says the robots are now in roughly 20,000+ schools, with 30,000+ teachers, and 1.3 million students using them to teach and learn STEAM and computer science principles. He loves seeing kids pushing Sphero’s toys to beyond even what its creators imagined it would be used for, like this 3rd Graders’ model of the solar system:

“Everyday we’re inspired by the creativity of our community,” Wilson says. And the team at Sphero were obviously inspired by the enthusiasm for SPRK.

BOLT ramps up SPRK several significant notches. The bigger battery is deliberately purposed for all-day use in schools, as is the BOLT Power Pack that secures and charges them. The addition of a compass and an “auto aim” feature is a quiet piece of genius that makes BOLT a breeze to steer, adjusting immediately to the user themselves as they move around.

And in June, Scratch integration was added to its Sphero Edu app. Your kids would probably know Scratch as the drag-and-drop block programming app that lets them build their own video games.

Now they can use it to program a robotic ball to play Snake, or Noughts and Crosses, tell them a story, or dance to the beat of a song. Slip a rubber sleeve over it, roll it in paint and BOLT turns into the fingerpainter of your dreams.

But even more impressive is the age rating – “Grades: K to 8”. The Edu app’s most basic drag-and-drop programming is intuitive enough for a kindergartner to give life to a BOLT and code it to play Duck Duck Goose with them. The latest post from the Sphero team shows them playing “hockey” with a BOLT using torches to manipulate its light sensors:

Even after the first couple of hours with BOLT, it’s easy to see the fun will take a long time to wear off. The more you play, and experiment, the more you realise what it might be capable of.

Everything it does is stored in code so you can go back and pick up the pieces you like, and use them again. The ideas just keep coming, and that goes a long way toward making the $249 price point a little easier to take. Here’s what that looks like as it’s working in real-time:

That LED matrix is fully programmable. It’s amazing what you can draw with 64 dots and a smartphone:

And of course, it’s “teaching your kid how to code”.

Let kids be kids

Having set the standard, Sphero is now far from alone in that category. There’s been a huge uplift in toys on shelves that tap into parental anxiety about whether schools are doing enough to future-proof their kids.

Yes, knowing how to code right now feels like the kind of skill that lets you name your price to a prospective employer. So it’s no surprise that the likes of Google and Facebook would like to see the future market flooded with millions of jobseekers listing coding as their second language.

It is surprising, however, to hear Wilson say thinking of coding as simply a job skill is one-dimensional.

While “it’s important for the workforce of the future to become digitally literate and understand how technology around them works,” he says, it’s also “great to know how your car works”.

“But not everyone needs to be a car mechanic.

“We are excited to provide students with opportunities to be smart, engaged, and curious about technology, and use it for good in their careers, but we know that not every one kid needs to become a programmer.

“We want our students to be educated and responsible in how they create digital content, consume it, act on it, communicate and share it, which means we want to educate them in all aspects of technology including learning to code.”

Kids right now are already subject to, and manipulated by, billions of lines of code every day. It therefore makes a lot of sense that they need to have an understanding, however rudimentary, of How Things Work as they get older. But that doesn’t automatically translate into “career option”.

Right now, Wilson says all you need to know about BOLT – and all programmable toys – is that “play is a powerful teacher”.

While BOLT is the ultimate Sphero right now, future versions will will go “even deeper into STEAM principles – while continuing to be seriously fun,” he says.

“We’re constantly iterating and improving our technology and the ultimate version of Sphero will continue to be exciting for kids, and kids at heart, to play to learn and learn to play.”

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