2 Sep 2017

Jon Carroll: 'Kids are less interested in traditional toys'

From Saturday Morning, 10:40 am on 2 September 2017

When it comes to the new generation of toys, Colorado company Sphero is leading the way.

Three years ago, Disney asked Sphero to produce a scaled-down version of BB-8, the orange spherical rolling pet droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Their later robots include R2-D2 and the education-focused SPRK (which stands for Schools Parents Robots Kids).

Sphero's Director of Prototyping Jon Carroll talks to Kim Hill about the future of robotic toys.

Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll Photo: RNZ

Carroll was a "super tech-savvy kid" who played with played with Lego, Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars and Nintendo.

He started developing iPhone apps after college, including the iFart – a virtual fart machine which drew the attention of Sphero. He became their fourth employee.

Sphero has been making robot balls since 2011, so they jumped at the opportunity to make a BB-8 droid.

BB-8™ a is remote-controlled and projects holograms that can be seen through your phone's camera, Carroll says.

R2-D2 was a much more complicated mission.

"There's four motors, he's got a fully retractable leg, he can waddle. The personality in him really comes out when he moves and dances."

R2-D2 was one of the first really friendly robots. When it comes to robots a friendly appearance is crucial to counter fears of robots taking over jobs or even the world, Carroll says.

Sphero SPRK

Sphero SPRK Photo: Sphero / YouTube

The SPRK robot – a clear version of the rolling ball toy that reveals all of the electronic components that power it – provides an entry way to learning about computer science, maths and geometry.

Kids can draw a shape on a screen, then see the text-based code that makes the robot drive in that shape and thereby learn about JavaScript programming, Carroll says.

SPRK is still little too expensive, he admits, but Sphero is trying to make it cheaper.

Carroll says the new generation of robotic toys enable humans to connect with other via what his company calls 'connected play'.

"Kids expect their toys to do a lot more. They're running around with iPads, iPods, cell phones… Toys that are traditional pieces of plastic that kids just push around are more boring and kids are less interested in them."