Nice Robot

Last night I read D.T. Max’s New Yorker article, A Whole New Ball Game, a profile on robotics-slash-childrens-toy-company Sphero. It’s a nice piece that highlights the company’s successes and how they’re piquing interest in computer science. 

The company, which started in the vague aim of Bluetooth and Internet of Things, hit its stride when an investor advised it to build something tangible that customers could play with. Its hardware-oriented co-founder remembered a robotic ball project he’d started at fourteen (precocity comes in many shapes) and Sphero was born.

Sphero has seen most of its success through a BB-8 replica (because Star Wars) but it’s also started to gain traction in schools. In addition to its smartphone controls, the rotund cyborg can be programmed by students using drag-and-drop block language (or via Oval, a C-variant, for that select group of kids who find C fun.)

Any time a toy is introduced into schools with the lofty aim of education, there’s skepticism, and the article acknowledges these doubters with coy observation.

“When [the teacher] was busy elsewhere, Spheros were often skidding and skipping and rolling underfoot---a toy is a toy.”

That said, the pervading sense you get is that the kids are engaging in Spheros and its block language in a way that isn’t just play, it’s “play [as] a kind of learning.”

During the author’s trip to a Sphero-equipped school in New Jersey, he contrasts how two of the students find play (and, by association, learning) in their own different ways.

"Meghan, a fifth grader, smoothly pulled down commands and got her Sphero to roll, execute a nice circlet, and come back. She also programmed it to light up in different colors to make it “pretty.”"

"Kieran, a sixth grader, boasted, “Coding is my second language.”... Kieran’s face glowed as he added commands with easy swipes; he clearly had the gift. He set his Sphero to go, but it stopped well short of the hurdle. “I will get this,” he said. “I think I got it. I think I got it. Nope? O.K.” He began furiously editing his program. The route could be navigated with just three commands, and, looking over his shoulder, I saw that he had put in a bunch of extraneous steps. He explained that this was deliberate. He was trying to fashion a more winding path through the course—another kind of pretty."

My favorite soundbite came from the author’s trip to a Sphero school in San Francisco, where “second graders play with Dash & Dot, a pair of robots that have anthropomorphic features. After programming them, one girl set them face to face. “I’m going to make them kiss.””

Through all of its cute anecdotes, A Whole New Ball Game delivers one message: the future of educational robotics isn’t coming, it’s here. And it looks a lot friendlier than we thought it would.

In a robotics field where most news centers around the types of futuristic creations that James Cameron taught us to run from, the petite Sphero and its gentle ambitions are a welcome change. The market has responded as such; Google has reportedly put its Boston Dynamics division up for sale due to concerns about its perception in the public eye. Meanwhile, Sphero and its makers are trying to figure out what to teach next.

It’s a nice direction to be rolling.