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It’s been about a year and a half since Sphero’s educational robotic ball SPRK hit the market. With much praise from educators and parents alike, the company has rolled out the second generation aptly called SPRK+. The spherical toy is cousins with the Star Wars BB-8, but smarter and more user-friendly. This little SPRK+ is just the robot to inspire STEM education in children.
What’s in the Box.
It’s similar to opening a new I-Phone.; the box is sleek and worth keeping. The contents inside are neatly packed and displayed. In particular, SPRK + comes with a slew of accessories, a USB charger, a protractor, and a roll of maze tape. The accessories, except the charger, are tailored towards hand-on learning, and you will see that as we explore what SPRK+ has to offer.
Like many Sphero products, the SPARK+ is a weighted ball with a motor inside that rolls in whatever direction you want it to. It includes a gyroscope, and programmable LED lights, with built-in free fall and collision detection, and all packaged inside a scratch resistant waterproof shell.
Get on The Ball
If you have ever seen SPRK, you’ve probably become used to the dull, gray appearance the robot gives off. With SPRK+, however, Sphero has given the robotic ball an aesthetic makeover. The company’s blue color is shown throughout, it’s a minor improvement from the original SPRK.
In addition, the internal LED’s are brighter, it still sports many colors, and all these colors are packed into a plastic shell, harder but smoother than before with the SPRK. This shell’s incredibly durable and smooth to the touch, even water can’t get through.
Charging the SPRK+ is just a matter of connecting the base to a USB port and then dropping the ball on top of the base. SPRK+ will light up and change color, and then the base will flash to show it’s charging. A full charge will give you around 60 minutes of playtime.
Given the large box, the Sphero SPRK+ comes in, you’d be forgiven for expecting something the size of a mini-football to roll out into the floor. In reality, what you get is closer to the dimensions of a tennis ball. Unlike a tennis ball, its hard plastic shell is completely clear, laying the technical innards bare; there’s a circuit board, cogs, screws, and a motor, all plainly visible to the outside world.
That does not say it’s fragile, in fact, the SPRK+ is designed to be manhandled by children and sharp-clawed pets alike. The shell is shock and waterproof, allowing you to program routines that involve water and sharp falls. The maze tape that’s included in the box can be used to map out a path to program SPRK+ to follow.
SPRK+: The APP
Everything is controlled using the free SPHERO EDU APP (formerly known as LIGHTING LAB) is available for both IOS, and Android, this is packed full of options, and connecting it to the SPRK+is just a matter of selecting the particular robot from a list of options and tapping your phone or tablet against the ball. Once the robot is connected the robot will light up and is ready to use. It employs Bluetooth technology for the connection and it has a 30 meter(about 100 feet) range.
The APP offers four options along the top– Feed, 3D Models, Profile, and Settings, and another four along the bottom, Home, Program, Activities, and Drive.
Feed contains a stream of new and recently posted programs, while 3D Models lets you explore inside Sphero robots. Profile is where you sign up for a Sphero Edu account so you can share programs and track activity. Settings is home to a lot of useful information, and you can force a firmware update and enable interface sounds in the programming canvases from here too.
It’s the menu strip at the bottom that’s of most interest though. Programs is where you can program SPRK+ and access past creations. There are three program types– Draw(you draw a shape for the ball to follow), Blocks(you use visual blocks to construct your program) and Text(use the C based language). You can also view featured programs and community creations.
Creating a program from Blocks is just a matter of perusing the action you want from the selection at the bottom. Categories include Movement, Lights & Sounds, Controls, Operators, Sensors, Events, Variables, and Functions. Drag an action to the canvas, and then stack up the other blocks as required.
The Activities section is for projects you are working on(you need to sign in for this) and Drive is where you can directly control SPRK+. A color wheel at the top lets you change the LED’s color as well as its brightness. Underneath this is a slider which lets you adjust the speed that the robot rolls at. It can move at a maximum of 4.5 miles per hour which is actually faster than you might expect. If you find controlling it at this speed too tricky, reducing it will make the ball more manageable.
Underneath the slider is a touchpad that is used to drive SPRK+. Before you start, however, you will first need to use the Aim option to make sure the robot is facing in the right direction. Just hold that button down, and then move your finger around the circle that appears until the blue light is facing you.
I have used the SPRK+ for a few weeks and I think is brilliant. At its most basic, you just can drive it around scaring your cats and entertaining your dogs. My six year old granddaughter loves it, and has constructed a number of pretty advanced programs without help.
The SPARK+ performs well in wooden and tile floors but will need to be tweaked to a slightly higher speed to function properly on carpets and rugs.
Robust scratch-proof waterproof design
Easy to set up and program
Excellent coding app
Scales nicely from novice stuff to expert
4.5 mph top speed
30 meters(100 feet) range
Can’t use other Sphero apps(only Sphero app compatible with SPRK+ is SPHERO EDU app)
60 minute battery life
Sphero SPARK+ is a hard product to rate, a lot will come to the child in question. There’s little that the SPARK+ does wrong. If you think your child would be interested in coding but would find it too complicated and frustrating to get started, then the Sphero SPRK+ is a great candidate. It can help children build up the right temperament, and figure out the logical steps in building a physical program and fixing problems.
On the other hand, we are not talking directly transferable skills here. The SPRK+ offers a drag and drop interface and a robot ready to do your bidding. You know how your child learns: if the keyboard and mouse leave them cold, this might be a better way of maintaining their attention, especially if you have time to help them to get the most out of it.
Either way, the Sphero SPRK+ will provide hours of entertainment, even if that’s limited to driving the SPRK+ into the walls. Take away the educational element, and it’s still a blast, just an expensive blast. But with the right parental guidance, the Sphero SPRK+ can be the best kind of toy: one that entertains and engages your child’s brain development.
The Sphero SPRK+ is designed for ages 6-9 years old.
For a quick video overview of the Sphero SPRK Plus click here.