Sphero Goes Crystal Clear with SPRK, a New Version of the Programmable Robot

SLJ reviews the 2.0 version of Sphero, one of the maker movement’s "robotic darlings," writes Wendy Stephens, who takes the new, clear skinned SPRK through its paces.

Anyone who has played with a Sphero—one of the maker movement’s robotic darlings—has surely wondered what was inside. To bystanders, the programmable ball might appear to have a life of its own, but a series of mechanisms help the electronic ball to turn, flash, even flip along the course specified through its suite of apps. The new 2.0 version, the SPRK, lets users peek inside the previously opaque shell to see the gears and circuits driving its motions. SPRK extends the gadget’s learning potential through command-line access to a range of scripts, which promise to help fledgling coders hone their skills by spelling out exactly what will trigger an action and what form that action will take.

The SPRK has a transparent polycarbonate shell, but proves every bit as resilient as the 2.0 hardware. Like the earlier Sphero, it uses induction rather than plug-in charging. However, the base is also transparent in the SPRK version. Three hours of charging provide about an hour of motion. Like all Spheros, SPRK pairs via Bluetooth with iOS, Android, and Windows hardware. At its most intuitive, the Sphero can be manually guided with a joystick-like action through dozens of apps or serve as a handheld game controller.

1510-Upfront-sphero-scoreThe SPRK software is where the Sphero gets really ed-tech friendly, offering instant gratification for budding coders looking to understand how computer languages inform hardware. Anyone who has played with the Sphero MacroLab will be familiar with its built-in, modifiable scripts that let you specify the distance the ball will travel in any one direction and the color it will turn, as well as directions for regular squares, figure eight, or zigzag paths you can assign for it. But the repertoire of delivered programs is both more varied and more easily customizable with SPRK, providing built-in menus that offer a range of nested options for adjustment grouped into actions, events, sensors, controls, and operators.

Within each program, users can manually adjust the settings or toggle to display or alter the coding, a C-based visual programming language called OVAL, which also enables drag-and-drop modification of scripts. When rolling, for example, variables allow users to specify speed, directions, spin, and color. The sensors can alter motion based on directionality, speed, and vertical acceleration, while the events of falling, collision, and landing can trigger branching scripts that make the object redirect in a particular way when it encounters an object, drops a certain amount, or stops dropping. For those interested in robotic negotiation of obstacles, one built-in option essentially creates a spherical version of a Roomba as the Sphero redirects 135 degrees “on collision.” Find even more lessons on mastering the array of variables at www.sphero.com/education.

The SPRK includes a protractor (to measure those angles to be negotiated) and a notebook and pencil for record keeping. A three-dimensional, zoomable visual breakdown of the hardware is nested inside the SPRK app for those curious about the wireless antenna or the position of the counterweights, which give the orb its heft.

As with the earlier Sphero, the biggest challenge seems to be successfully pairing and maintaining a connection to a tablet or phone. But clearing the Bluetooth cache and resetting the Sphero through the base unit resolves most issues.

At a modest price point compatible with a range of hardware, the SPRK is a clever object with a range of available software that is bound to provide hours of play with some stealth exposure to the command-line programming controlling its path behind the scenes.

Wendy Stephens is the librarian at Cullman (AL) High School.

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