The new Sphero Mini has serious developer game

Anthony Caruana
16 October, 2017
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I love my Sphero Star Wars robots – R2-D2 and BB-9E keep me company and give me something to do while I’m kicking back on the couch. But Sphero isn’t only a toy company – it is also into education in a big way. And while the new Star Wars toys can be programmed and used to teach the young and young at heart about creating software, their price-tag makes that hard to justify. Enter the Sphero Mini – a ping-pong ball sized spherical robot that acts as a gateway for getting kids into creating software.

The outer casing, which comes in several colours and can be lit through an internal light (that can be controlled programmatically to change brightness and colour), houses a small version of robot that powers the BB-9E and BB-8 droids, both of which are part of the expanding Star Wars universe.

You can control the Sphero Mini wirelessly from up to ten metres away using the iOS app (there’s an Android version of the app as well). The device has a 45-minute battery life, which is not great, but if you’re a teacher then this is about as long as a standard lesson time once you take into account set-up and pack-up time. The robot is charged it using the supplied USB-mini cable that accompanies a set of small bowling pins and witches hats for honing your navigation skills.

When I first launched the app I hit a couple of snags. The first time I ran it, it thought I was in landscape mode and the ‘I accept’ button for the privacy policy and terms of use was beyond the end of the screen, with no way to click the button. And the privacy policy and terms of use were long – way too long for an app and toy that is likely to be used by kids. The information needs to be presented in a child-friendly way.

The Sphero Mini works just like the other Sphero robots. You drag your finger across the screen and the robot responds appropriately once you’ve calibrated it to know the difference between left and right. As a novelty, you can also use facial recognition to move the robot. Smiling, frowning and winking can be used to drive the Sphero Mini.

But the real fun comes when you start programming with the Sphero Mini.

For programming, you’ll need the free Sphero Edu app. This lets you make the robot move, change it’s LED colour, respond to input from its sensors such as the gyroscopes, or respond to events such as collisions. You can also define variables and functions as you move from simple automation to using program logic. So you don’t start from scratch, there are lots of online resources for parents, kids and teachers.

Sphero has a solid relationship with Apple and the Swift Playgrounds app can be used to program many of Sphero’s other devices. However, the templates in the Swift Playgrounds’ library don’t yet support the Sphero Mini, although that support is expected to come soon.

Macworld Australia‘s buying advice: With Christmas coming soon, the Sphero Mini would make a great gift for the aspiring programmer. At just $80 it’s not ridiculously expensive and, as kids move from basic concepts to using more sophisticated programming, it will give them many hours of fun and learning.

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