There may not seem a natural connection between classical guitar lessons and robotics. But this unlikely combination started the ball rolling for a robot phenomenon we now all know as Sphero.
High roller: Ian with the updated BB-8 and app
“My dad is a classical guitar teacher. He taught lessons to my electronics teacher who, in return, taught me – and hour for an hour,” explained Ian Bernstein.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Ian when he visited New Zealand last month. The robotics company he co-founded in 2011, Sphero, has now shipped more than one million units and is partnering with Disney. Not bad for a boy from Ocate, New Mexico (population 135), who didn’t want to go to school and dropped out of College.
“I didn’t feel I was learning enough at school and didn’t want to go. So, I was home schooled. I’ve always been interested in electronics and started building robots. We were a long way from anywhere and had to travel to competitions. I met Mark Tilden, of BEAM Robotics, and my interest grew from there.”
After dabbling with Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Ian was looking for work. Jobs at a careers fair sounded “really boring”, so he decided to create his own.
“I advertised on Craig’s List to create websites for companies but still worked on electronics and robots.”
Ian met Adam Wilson and an idea for using smartphones to operate everyday items, like lights and garage doors, led them to Techstars, a mentorship-driven start-up accelerator.
“We had an unsuccessful pitch, then immediately drove 17 hours to Techstars and earned a deal. It was great to get the help and advice. We had several ideas around the smartphone operation theme and were looking for the right one. One night Adam suggested controlling a ‘marble-like’ device.”
And so Sphero, an app-enabled robotic ball, was born (although they went through a few names before settling on Sphero). They developed and refined, and Sphero 1.0 was launched in 2011. Two years later, Sphero 2.0 rolled off the production line, which was faster, brighter, and smarter.
In 2014, the SPRK education curriculum was launched, “after years of meet-up groups where we taught kids how to program. Education is a focus for us, especially our idea of ‘Connected Play’.”
Developing with Disney
Around the same time, Disney sent an invitation to join its Accelerator Program, ‘Project Rayve’.
“It was during production of the last Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. We met with CEO Bob Iger. He’d seen Sphero and saw the similarity with the BB-8 droid and wanted us to create an app-enabled version. It was amazing. We were sworn to secrecy while developing it!
“We gave this project all we had. It sold out in the first day and achieved toy-of-the-year status.”
An updated version of the BB-8 robot will hit the shop shelves globally at the end of September. It comes complete with a new battle-scarred finish and the ‘Force Band’, a wristband, that lets you control it with hand gestures. (I had a sneak peek and it’s really cool.) It’s the latest in innovation and creativity that has the potential to take the company almost anywhere.
“What we’re experiencing today will be completely different to what it evolves to in a year from now,” added Ian. “We’re also looking at an idea we’ve thought about since kids – a robot in every house. Not something that sits in the corner and comes out to do the vacuuming. But something that’s part of the family, with personality and character. Like Rosie from The Jetsons.”
Sphero’s story is one of not only passion but also perseverance. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Ian Bernstein was talking to Greg Adams, Editor of INTERFACE Magazine.