Sphero holds the key to the workings of Star Wars' new droid, BB-8. (Image source: Sphero)
Star Wars: Thee Force Awakens won't be hitting theaters until December, but a new character has already stolen fans' hearts — a beach ball-shaped droid named BB-8.
There was immediate speculation as to not only how the robot worked — its head seems to defy the laws of physics, staying perched on top of the body as it rolls — but if it was even real at all.
But Disney surprised everyone last April at the 2015 Star Wars Celebration,when a real, working BB-8 rolled out on the stage during a presentation.
Shortly after Disney announced that BB-8 toys would be coming to store shelves this fall. While BB-8 is a prop controlled by puppeteers in the film, in an interview with the New York Times Disney CEO Bob Iger credited the inspiration for truly bringing BB-8 to life to Sphero (formerly Orbotix), a Colorado-based toy start-up that produces a small, smartphone-controlled, ball-shaped robot of the same name.
On the surface Sphero looks like a plain white ball, but tucked inside its innocuous package is a robot that is inspiring kids, teachers, and hackers with its open source app interface and versatility. And as company co-founder Ian Bernstein will attest, creating a robot capable of inspiring the folks as Disney isn't an easy task.
Bernstein, a New Mexico native, was home-schooled from a young age and has spent that majority of his life around robotics. He got his start at age 12 working with BEAM (Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, and Mechanics) robots and was also mentored by BEAM's inventor and renowned robotics physicist Mark Tilden. “All I did was build robots all day,” Bernstein told Design News.
Fast forward to 2009. While working at a Colorado robotics company and studying at Colorado State University, Bernstein happened upon the idea to de- velop a robot that could be controlled via a smartphone. “One night I was playing with my iPhone and I thought, this thing is really powerful, why can't I use it as the brains of these robots?" he said.
It was about this time that he met Adam Wilson, with whom he would later co-found Orbotix. The two began collaborating on smartphone-controlled applications such as home automation and remote car starters and eventually attracted the attention of TechStars, a competitive start-up accelerator program.
Their relationship with TechStars would eventually lead to Orbotix's involvement with the Disney Accelera- tor program, a mentorship program for tech companies, where they would be discovered by Iger.
But before any of this they needed a killer idea that would beat out their com- petitors at TechStars for seed funding.
“We thought of hundreds of ideas and it really came down to (the fact) that we needed something simple,” Bernstein said. “It had to be something I can pull out of my pocket, throw on the table, and have it do something interesting."
“We liked the ball because its an approachable form factor,” Bernstein added. “When you pull a Sphero out anywhere in public people aren't afraid of it in any way. ey're really curious about it.”
For Bernstein and his team the sphere shape is the ultimate tabula rasa. “It's really an open eld for apps,” Bernstein said. “A car-shaped robot, for example, is very limited because people know what a car is. But with a ball it's very easy to imagine it doing di erent things. As soon as people make a robot look like something familiar, say a dog, it won't live up to the real thing.”
Reinventing the Sphere
Spherical robots have been around for years but haven't enjoyed the spotlight as much as their more humanoid counter- parts. In fact, the rst US patents for an autonomous ball go back as far as 1897 as inventors sought ways of creating self- propelled balls as toys that could move on their own by storing and releasing spring energy — usually with some sort of counterweight mechanism.
A 2005 paper, "Ball-shaped Robots: A Historical Overview," written by Jussi Suomela and Tom Ylikorpi from Hel- sinki University of Technology, discusses a number of technical challenges around creating a spherical robot — primarily terrain-based limitations and the dif- culty of controlling the device, since a ball can freely rotate in any direction.
The Sphero team ran head on into all of these challenges while creating Sphero. “It appears very simple, but for us engi- neers it's frustrating when people say it's just a ball,” Bernstein said. "Just the control system to do a self-balancing robot inside a sphere ... I remember the rst time we ever got it to roll straight was a huge thing. But it was slow and wobbling.”
Creating what Bernstein likens to a Segway scooter inside of a sphere re- quired a lot of time iterating the mechan- ics to achieve the right level of stability. e control system consists of an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that uses a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magne- tometer to maintain a sense of heading and orient the robot.
But Sphero's shell proved to be the most di cult part of its mechanics. Even once they got Sphero moving the team realized it also had to be the right size as well as durable enough to survive hitting walls or even falling down stairs.
The final product is made of a high density polycarbonate shell that's solvent bonded together for durability. “Even thickening the shell by 0.1 mm, just that extra mass out at the edge, degrades the performances quite a bit. And we had
to gure out how to injection mold that and bond the shells together and deco- rate it,” Bernstein said.
True to their own roots, Bernstein and Wilson have kept Sphero's software platform open source, allowing any third parties to develop apps for the robot. Of course the games are the most popular.
Sphero has also established its Students, Parents, Robots, and Kids (SPARK) program to help teachers utilize Sphero as an educational tool. As of today there are thousands of schools using Sphero in some capacity and the robot has also been used in the Apple Distinguished Educators program.
While there are no current plans to fully open up the hardware, Bernstein said the hardware is still very hacker friendly. “At some point we might open everything up, but right now me make
it as easy to modify as possible,” he said. “You can connect a Sphero to a computer, open a serial terminal program, and you'll get a command prompt that lets you modify a lot of aspects of the control sys- tem and get in pretty deep if you want to.”
Sphero has kept quiet on full details surrounding its relationship with Disney. But for Bernstein their time at the Disney Accelerator was more about advancing real life robotics into something as personable as the ones in science ction.
“We're really focused on how we can make robots learn things about you. How do we create robots that have a better connection with their users and owners, recognizing who their owners are, and start to change depending on how you in- teract with them?” Bernstein said. "We're coming at robotics from the perspective of entertainment and fun.”
Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.