What’s new? What do we think? What do you need to know? There is a selection of new devices being pitched at the education market. INTERFACE Editor Greg Adams checks out a new robotic and coding addition.
Sphero SPRK Edition
There’s only one thing better than a Sphero SPRK Edition – two of them! Thanks to our friends at Harvey Norman, we’ve had them rolling around the office and in a classroom, and these little balls are a lot of fun. (And we’re now giving them away – see page 48.)
SPRK Edition is the latest version of the company’s namesake product geared towards robotics education, and available from Harvey Norman ($176). The new bot is physically and mechanically the same as the Sphero 2.0 but has a transparent polycarbonate casing, allowing you to see the intricate componentry inside. This seems a simple enough idea but it really does give a sense of getting to know the ‘outs and ins’ of Sphero – it’s just a bit more personal.
Plus, it’s a tough little cookie, combining a quality build with robustness enough for the classroom, although I wouldn’t recommend dropping or throwing it.
Charge and download
The first thing to do is charge it up. Simply plug in and place the ball in its charging holder (the heavy part downwards). While it’s doing this, you’ll need to download the free app, SPRK Lightning Lab, which will let you control Sphero. There’s an iOS and Android version. You’ll also need to switch on your device’s Bluetooth, so the app can talk to the robot.
When you launch the app, it’ll automatically search for a nearby Sphero. (Tap Sphero to switch it on – and it’ll start flashing.) Once connected, you’re good to go.
Drive and manoeuvre
What can you do with it? Just as with the original, the SPRK Edition can be driven around much like a remote-controlled car, using your smartphone or tablet as a wireless controller. Just press the steering wheel icon to get started. There are three controls. On the left, move the dot with your finger in the direction you want to go. On the right is the colour option and the speed setting – and, boy, can these things whizz along.
Steering is a bit fiddly … but that’s half the enjoyment. We found it also needs to be ‘oriented’ regularly, where you fix your location in relation to Sphero
Coding and creativity
Moving Sphero SPRK around is cool. Good for motor skills, thinking and concentration, and general engagement. But beyond the Year 1-3 range, it won’t hold attention for too long. What really takes this device beyond novelty and into the world of real robotics, probably for Years 4-7, is the ability to create and save custom programs that your Sphero can carry out.
There are a number of pre-set, ‘Sample’ programs – things like moving in a particular shape, changing speed, and even jumping. Or you can program movements yourself, using a block-style interface (it uses its own C-based language called OVAL) for visually programming and fine tuning actions, such as speed, spin, colour, and more. You could program it to follow a maze pattern, avoid obstacles, or dance, for example. And being see-through, you can literally watch the connection between the program you created and how the insides of the Sphero work.
Sophisticated and engaging
If you were wondering, SPRK stands for ‘Schools Parents Robots Kids’. Sphero’s goal with both the SPRK product and educational programme is to put easy-to-use robots in the hands of students and educators – and they’re doing a pretty good job.
One tiny negative … the packaging. It seemed way too much. I know manufacturers like us to have the ‘box opening’ experience – and the product needs to be packed protectively. But there did seem a lot of the stuff.
Other than that, few complaints. It’s probably a lot to spend for just driving around. However, take full advantage of the coding component, and it becomes quite a sophisticated and engaging learning device.