Meet Sphero

So Princeton McLauchlin isn’t easily swayed when it comes to the latest technological do-dad. You can tell by the crossing of the arms. The stare. The sneer. He’s 13, which certainly explains a bit of the attitude, though basically he’s one of those “yeah, whatever” kids convinced there’s no such thing as innovation, at least not something he and his other jaded buddies at Nichols Junior High School haven’t already mastered, taken apart and pieced back together.

Princeton is in the activity room of the Northeast Branch Public Library being introduced to Sphero, the latest in robotic ingenuity, and he’s yawning while grabbing what looks like nothing more than a round plastic ball and fidgeting with a iPad that comes along with it.

Before Librarian Morgan Brickey can complete her instructional lowdown on what Sphero is and what he can do – Brickey refers to this technological toy as a he, but more on that later – Princeton already has the little guy out of its secure wrapping and turning its colors from red to blue to green.

Sphero joins the family at the Arlington Public Library’s already robust robotics offerings that include classes and workshops and the actual planning and building of programmed robots able to do what you want them to do. That is, in fact, the joy of Sphero, and you don’t have a trillion little pieces to connect.

“It’s deceptively simple,” Brickey had said to me days earlier when I stopped by the Central Library to meet Sphero.

When Brickey lifts one of the robots out of its case she puts it on the floor and begins to tap on an iPad. When he doesn’t move at first, she whispers to Sphero, “C’mon buddy. Wake up from your little nap.”

Therein lies one of the enticements of this robot that the library wants to use to engage teens, especially those often intimidated by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), which students often equate to brilliant classmates on an MIT track.

These Spheros are distant cousins to the roundly joyful machinery of Star Wars – a ball without a face but oddly human. “They’re cute,” Brickey says. “You can see inside of them. It almost looks like it has a little face on it. Before long, he’s like your little buddy.”

iPads can program Sphero. You can tell the robot how long to roll, or spin, and in what direction. When to stop. Go. What to do next.

For a shining brief moment, teens are giving instructions instead of following them. Brickey says their expansion will eventually include teens that fall along the autism spectrum.

At Northeast, about 16 kids – almost all of them from Nichols, which is within walking distance of the library – are sending a number of Spheros around the room, bumping into walls and chairs and one another. They first follow an existing program within Lightning Lab software. This is the first step to learning the idea of programming before customizing a design. The kids all seem extra excited by the notion of making the robot do what they want it to do.

Brickey wanted this introduction to be just that. Play with it. Mess around. See what it can do and can’t. The challenge (and more fun) comes later when coding Sphero to navigate through mazes, swim in small pools and roll up and down bridges.

“We were really interested to see how middle school kids react to Sphero partly because modern technology is such a large part of their lives – what do they see as challenging and fun?” Brickey says.

Kids are digital natives with technology embedded into their lives. A natural understanding and its benefits are formed early on, which also means there’s a huge upside for integrating intelligent technologies into learning environments. Sphero might not be the Cadillac of robotics, but these cute little guys will undoubtedly spark an interest in technology and computer programming. Watching the teens go at it for an hour or so clearly shows the huge potential for blurring the lines between learning and play.

Would you rather answer multiple-choice questions out of a booklet or let loose with Sphero?

No need to ask Princeton. At one point we catch him rolling around the floor with Sphero, and finally lying on his back, Sphero on his tummy like some sort of robotic pet.

Thought for a minute he’d hug the thing.

Oh no. He goes the typical boy route. “This is just so cool,” he says, with warm, 13-year-old affection. “So cool.”


Columnist Kenneth Perkins has been a contributing writer for Arlington Today since it debuted. He is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.