Sphero 2: Not just a toy

I saw my first Sphero at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in 2013. Sphero wasn’t new at the time, but after seeing it in action I just had to have one. Who wouldn’t want a silly robotic ball that you can control with your smartphone?

Image via Time.com

Fast-forward 12 months and the revised Sphero 2 is on my desk. It’s faster, brighter and apparently more agile than the original. The 10 year-old and I had a blast putting the new Sphero through its paces, bumping down the hallway and occasionally hitting the ramps. Yup – it’s still pretty hard to get Sphero heading in the direction you want, but it sure is fun while you try.

Out of the box (which includes two jump ramps), Sphero 2 is quite a bit more fun than the original. A new career mode has been added to the basic smartphone app, encouraging users to play with Sphero to unlock new tricks and develop their control skills. There are of course a bunch of other apps to play with too.

But to me, just playing with Sphero using the provided apps is only the start.

Programming Sphero

Orbotix have obviously had a lot of feedback from people like me: coders and parents of curious 10 year olds. Their Sphero MacroLab and more advanced orbBasic apps provide a great way for kids (and adults) to experiment with basic programming techniques. I’m not sure how many institutes have taken up Orbotix’s education discount, but it looks like a great idea.

For those with more experience in coding, Orbotix provides a full Sphero SDK for most platforms, and a bunch of documentation and information via their official developer portal. Orbotix’s GitHub profile is a quick way to to see some of the available samples.

Perhaps one of the more zany things about Sphero is that you can use its location and orientation sensors as input devices, rather than just telling the robot where to go. There are a few examples of Sphero as an input device for gaming and 3D input, but perhaps the coolest one is using Sphero to control a drone:

The demo above uses the AR-Drone Sphero SDK. Perhaps you could take it to the next level by using the spheroSMS package to control the AR-Drone via Sphero via SMS?

In conclusion, Sphero is totally nuts, both as a simple toy and as a tool for education and software development. It’s just plain fun, and I can’t wait to play with the new Ollie, which promises to be like Sphero on steroids.

Video: Robots and Tinkering

Here are the items I reviewed on TVNZ this morning. Click the image for the video.

Video robots Lego

Item: “Klutz” Science Books
Price:Various (generally $30-$40)
Rating: 4 / 5

Info: If you have a budding young scientist who is perhaps a bit too junior to be holding a soldering iron, books like the Klutz range are a great intro. The books come with a bunch of items on the front cover, from which you can build cars, boats or other mechanical contraptions. While doing so, the book will tell you about how batteries work, or perhaps how solar power and motors work. Sometimes they are a little expensive, but if you can grab one on special, put it away for a rainy weekend or holiday.

Item: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0
Price: $499 – Available in September from Toyworld and Lego stockists
Rating: 4 / 5

Info: Mindstorms NXT 2.0 is the third iteration of Lego’s robotics kitset, and the second version of their NXT range. They’ve pretty much perfected the kit this time around. The addition of a colour sensor and a range of coloured balls creates huge scope for building interactive robots. The provided software is fantastically easy to use, and the kit robots are great fun to play with. You don’t need to know a line of code to make the robots behave, yet you’ll find the process will teach budding developers all about loops and parameters, and also a good deal of debugging and testing.
The box says “10+”, but a savvy six year old will enjoy building the robots with help, and a 10 year old should be able to code some basic behaviour. Of course most 35 year old kids will also hugely enjoy the kit.
My only complaint would be the price, with $500 making this close to the most expensive Lego set money can buy.

Item: Arduino Duemilanove Starter Kit
Price: $99.95
Rating: 5 / 5

Info: When you run out of things that the Lego Mindstorms robots can do, switch over to “real” programming on an Arduino. The Duemilanove is a great starter board, with heaps of inputs and outputs. If you know some very basic programming concepts, you can have a bunch of lights flashing within minutes. Then grab some components and let your imagination run wild. How about a plant pot that posts to Facebook when it needs watering, or a completely autonomous radio control plane? All do-able with an Arduino and some extra bits.

Review: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0

Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0Back when we had two incomes, no mortgage, and no kids, I found it scarily easy to succumb to the attraction of the original Lego Robotics Invention System. It was quite the achievement at the time: two motors, a bunch of basic sensors, and a whole heap of Technics. The software was barely stable, but if you worked at it you could create a line-following robot or perhaps a humanoid that could take a couple of steps before toppling over.

Since then, Lego have revised their robotics kit completely with the original NXT, and are now set to release the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit. The kit will be available in New Zealand from September, with a retail price of $499, unless you can grab it in a Toyworld sale. So what do you get for your money?

  • The NXT 2.0 “brick”. This is the nerve-center of the kit. A chunky brick that takes 6 AA batteries. It has three motor outputs and four sensor inputs. It connects to your PC via USB or Bluetooth to receive program updates, and can talk to other NXT bricks via Bluetooth too.
  • The NXT 2.0 software for your PC or Mac. This is what you’ll use to program your NXT brick. Don’t think of it as esoteric code with FOR loops and semicolons. Everything is done via drag-and-drop. Blocks for turning motors on and off, sensing colour, and playing sounds all slot together as easily as physical Lego blocks.
  • Three honest-to-goodness servomotors (I’m not positive, but I don’t believe they are stepper motors – can anyone inform me otherwise?). In the old days you had to turn the motors on for a predetermined time, and just pray that they ran at the right speed for the right number of rotations. The NXT kits use feedback to determine how far the motor has turned, so you can command them to turn 90 degrees, or 4 rotations, and they’ll do just that (or churn through batteries trying to).
  • Two touch sensors – just basic momentary switches as far as I can tell.
  • One ultrasonic distance sensor, designed to look uncannily like a pair of robot eyes.
  • One colour sensor (including a tri-colour LED lamp). This was the only real issue I had with the kit: the colour sensor didn’t work so well in bright sunlight. It worked fine at night or indoors in the shade.
  • A metric vatload of technics parts. I’m not going to list them all here, but serious Lego geeks can check out a comparison of NXT 2.0 parts vs the previous version, or a complete breakdown of parts in the kit.

Continue reading “Review: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0”

There are Robots Everywhere

It is de rigueur among the technorati to complain about the current lack of 21st-century technological wonderments, such as jetpacks, robots, and pill-food. Personally I can understand the lack of jetpacks and pill-food. If we had both, one?s existence would swing constantly between cold, wet terror and unfathomable gastronomic boredom.

Now robots on the other hand?

robot_300 There are robots everywhere, it?s just that we can?t hear them, and this leads us to take them for granted. Imagine life without your bread cooking robot? And how would you wake up each day without the help of your bedside temporal notification robot (unless of course you have young meatsacks to do the waking job for you). If you?re like me, you probably take advantage of your office water heating robot every day, without even a second thought.

We need more respect for the robots of today, and you can do your small part. The next time you encounter a robot, imagine it talking to you in standard sci-fi robotese:

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?Good morning sir, your cooked bread is ready. Please allow me to raise it from the cooking element, and do mind your fingers! The cooked bread is still hot.?

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?Ma?am, while you were asleep last night, I took the liberty of detecting which of your digital storage files had changed since our last backup. I sent those changed files to the digital storage robot you had designated for safekeeping, and have marked those files as no longer changed.?

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?Sir, your clothes and towels are now dry. Aren?t you glad you chose not to hang them on the line outside? The weather station robot has informed me of the recent rainfall, and besides, the towels always come in so crunchy!?

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I hope that in the near future, all domestic and commercial robots come with this as an optional (or ideally compulsory) feature. In the interim, please take time to appreciate your robot menagerie.