Simple looking on the outside, wildly complex on the inside, but mostly just a whole lot of fun to play with, Sphero from robotics company, Orbotix, is rolling full speed ahead.
“I’ve always wanted to sort of do my own thing,” said Orbotix founder Ian Bernstein when I caught up with him recently in Boulder, Colorado. Bernstein, just 29 years old, said he had gotten tired of building websites for other people and came up with the idea of a smartphone controlled ball based on a childhood passion for building robots out of spare parts.
The electrical engineer spent time on and off in college, started his own web design firm and worked on robotics in his spare time before figuring out he wanted to do it full time.
“I started building robots when I was 12. I’ve been building and creating things for a long time,” he said noting that from as young as five years old, he had a box of random electronic parts gleaned from cameras and walkmans he had dissected.
Bernstein’s father –a classical guitarist-- encouraged his son, taking him around to electronics repair shops and filling up his room with old televisions and other things he could take apart.
Bernstein became fascinated with Beam robotics, with its philosophy of using hacked materials to build things that mimicked biological organisms.
“A lot of the robots I built early on were legged robots, solar powered robots that looked like insects,” he explained, noting that the aesthetics were especially important. “If they look good, they’re supposed to function good,” said Bernstein adding, “I liked the creative aspect of it but also the problem solving engineering aspect of it.”
Just over two and a half years ago, after going through the TechStars incubator program to develop young tech talent, Bernstein was introduced to his now partner Adam Wilson, a software engineer, and founded Orbotix with money from family, friends and a handful of investors.
The pair started building prototypes of Sphero with bits and pieces of materials procured from Hobby Lobby. The shell of a Christmas bauble, a couple of rudimentary motors and some flashing LEDs.
In April of 2011 the seedling company managed to raise $5 million in series B funding, allowing production to go into full force.
Today, Sphero includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a processor, an RGB LED and a couple motors, with most components procured from Digikey.
“Motors and things like that I’ll do surplus,” said Bernstein, sticking to his humble beginnings. That frugal mindset does the firm credit, considering it manages to sell its balls for $129 apiece.
There are currently about 15 games and apps available to work with Sphero, as well as an open SDK so anyone can build IOS or Android apps for it, and the firm takes part in numerous hackathons.
Bernstein said the device could also be used as a 3D mouse, or game controller, to add an extra dimension to mobile gaming.
But building robots isn’t always fun and games.
“During the day it’s mostly emails and meetings and things like that, but once everybody is gone at 8 or 9pm at night, I can get back to my projects where I like to hack things and solder,” said Bernstein, proudly showing off his Raspberry Pi and MakerBot 3D printer.
Also, above all, Bernstein still relishes problem solving. “It’s fun, I enjoy it,” he told me, adding “we build robot gaming systems, how much better can it get?”
How much better indeed?
Check out the video below and tell us what you’d love to build to work with a robotic ball…
This is indeed quite interesting, and I wonder about what the business plan is. A remote controlled ball has quite a lot of potential, especially depending on size. I can see all sorts of possibilities for a whole lot of uses in security and defense. Of course, there are a lot of fun applications as well. Consider the current configuration with a video camera sending back images of what it sees, and an IR video camera to make it useful in the dark.
Yes, Mr. Bernstein is one to watch, I figure. His inventive nature is so refreshing. He and his team are taking a good idea and making it great by expounding on it with an open interface that encourages others to follow along. I would encourage him, and those who aspire to be like him, to continually reinvent themselves every few years; to continue to invent and lead -- for the money, sure -- but mostly, to entice us all toward a playful and productive future, and inspire others to do the same.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.