Keep Your Eye On the Ball

Photo courtesy Sphero

The next big thing in toys is being cooked-up right under our Boulder noses.

Maybe you’ve heard of Sphero, the robotics toy company that sprang up in Boulder five years ago.

446142682_640Or, maybe you’ve seen their product – the app-enabled ball that rolls, turns colors, and does other feats that you control with your smartphone.

If you haven’t, you’re going to.

Because this robotic ball is about to blast off. This fall, it will be all systems go when Sphero hits the BIG stage with a toy version of the new Star Wars droid, BB-8.

BB-8 debuts as new Star Wars droid.

BB-8 debuts as new Star Wars droid.

Super fast and smaller than R2-D2, the adorable new droid star of the Star Wars film that debuts Dec. 18 is guaranteed to steal the hearts of kids around the world.

Simple, Fun and Venture Funded

The company, Sphero — originally Gear Box, then Orbotix — is the brainchild of two passionate robotics engineers, Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson. Founded in Boulder, Sphero has been building momentum since its TechStars on-stage demo in 2010.

TechStarsDuring that demo, co-founder Adam Wilson introduced the product. “So in this video, I’m controlling a robotic ball with my smartphone. You might ask yourself, what’s so great about that? Well, it’s a robotic ball controlled from a smartphone,” he said, and the audience – in-tune with the elegant simplicity – roared with approving laughter.

The simple demo resulted in Ian and Adam raising a million dollar first round of funding, led by Boulder’s The Foundry Group. Because it’s in that very simplicity, that Sphero is oh-so-much.

Similar to a remote-control car, Sphero delivers that driving gameplay experience. In addition, says Sphero’s Claire Tindall, you can use it as a controller and for multi-player games and augmented reality.

element(41)You also can program it yourself, typing text or placing drag-n-drop programming blocks via smartphone. More than 40 apps have been created by the company or individuals.

Connected Toys

Sphero’s introduction marked the beginning of a new toy category, connected toys, which ‘create ever-evolving experiences that change the way people play, learn and explore.’

“We wanted to add that level of connectivity because it brings a deeper experience and transforms the way people play…We’re not doing  kids favors by giving them toys that don’t do anything and then giving them an iPad where they are just tapping on glass all day,” elaborates Tindall.

Remember This? In 2012, when President Obama came to town, Sphero employees got him to take the robotic ball for a drive. Video courtesy Daily Camera.

Enter Star Wars

As recently as 2014, as seen in this company video, co-founder Ian Bernstein was considering his next big thing, “Four years ago, I’d wake up in the morning thinking about how to get…into TechStars. Now when I wake up in the morning, really I’m just thinking, how do we get every kid in the world to know what our products are and be begging their parents to buy it.”

And then came Lucasfilm. Problem solved, in such a big way.


BB-8 in the Star Wars film trailer. The film premiers Dec. 18.

BB-8 and Beyond

Now, Sphero play-makers are developing toys and robots that are more companion-based.

The idea is to “bring science fiction technology to life,” says Tindall. Referring to the film version of BB-8 as a companion droid, Tindall suggests Sphero’s toy BB-8 may introduce some companion capabilities.

“What if your Sphero toy reacts differently because they know who they belong to and it helps form that deeper relationship?… You think of your cell phone and all of the personal information it stores, but your phone doesn’t know who owns it, so it’s really a one-sided relationship,” says Tindall.

Just how good could this get? Possibly really good, since the company is working to build in some utilitarian function. Tindall wonders, “Can it unload the dishwasher?”

We can only hope.

Learn More

TechStars is the BoulderSource Featured Friend this month. Read more about TechStars and Boulder Startup Week here:

Fueling Boulder’s Tech Leadership

Imbibing Can-Do: Boulder Startup Week



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