A programmable robot the size of a ping pong ball, the Sphero Mini is ready to roll into classrooms.
While Orbotix started out making educational toys like the Sphero and Ollie programmable robots, it lost its way in the last few years with a focus on cute movie tie-ins. While Sphero R2-D2 is admittedly very cool, it’s great to see Sphero get back to its roots with the affordable new Sphero Mini for kids who want to get hands on with tech.
The $79.99 Sphero Mini is a smaller version of Sphero’s educational SPRK+ rolling robot designed for educators. The Mini features a 6-axis inertial sensor, gyroscope, accelerometer, LED lights and Bluetooth LE, all fitting inside an interchangeable coloured shell.
In terms of educational value the Mini is on par with its big brother, working with the Sphero Edu block-style programming app on iOS/Android. Like Hopscotch and MIT’s Scratch, Sphero Edu is designed to introduce children to basic programming concepts without getting bogged down in the command line and complex syntax.
Sphero offers a wide range of lesson plans for teachers who want to introduce programming to the classroom or parents who want to give their kids a headstart. The Mini also works with Apple’s Swift Playground which turns coding into a puzzle game without hiding the code (although I’m told Swift Playground support won’t be available at launch).
Orbotix has also thrown a few novelty features into the Sphero app, such as the ability to control the Mini using facial expressions. The tiny Anki Cozmo robot – recently landing in Australia to become one of Sphero’s closest rivals – also recognises facial expressions, and I’ll be putting both through their paces in the next few weeks.
The Mini lacks a few features compared to the more advanced Sphero models, but nothing that is likely to be a major setback in the classroom. It’s not waterproof and it forgoes wireless charging in favour of a microUSB port, with a 60-minute battery life. Meanwhile its top speed has dropped from 2 metres per second to 1.5.
While it might not be as zippy as its predecessors, the Sphero Mini still looks to have a lot to offer kids who want to learn what makes things tick.