Sphero, the little, round, programmable robot, rolled its way into many hearts since it was released in 2011, confounding pets and expressing a unique form of movement. It was a reimagining of both robots and remote control.
For its second act, the company is reimagining wheels — at least, wheels in the context of robots. So, meet Ollie, which is a Sphero-sized body, elongated slightly, and equipped with a wheel on either end. It’s not quite so omnidirectional as Sphero, but what it lacks in that department it makes up in creative programming that allows it to recognize its position and direction, and maintain its course in the face of bumps, jumps, and flips. But it stays true to — and even improves upon — Sphero’s programmable, hackable nature.
“The robot itself is always keeping track of its tricks, so it always knows how it’s oriented in the air, it knows if it’s in the air, it knows how many spins it’s done in the last certain amount of time. It’s actually doing those calculations on the actual robot, and then it sends the results up to the phone,” says Brandon Dorris, Sphero director of product development.
Earlier this year, Sphero released a video showing off the Ollie with a bunch of skaters and their skateboards. (Note the robot’s skate-inspired name.) The emphasis now is on more extreme play, but it’s still programmable — you can create tricks, the company points out, and Ollie will track its own air time, spins, and more.
Necessary for the zippier acrobatics was a refinement of Bluetooth LE. To get the phone to communicate with the Ollie faster, they needed to use LE, but LE can’t transfer as much information. So, to get the data across, the app sends them in packages of six, explains Dorris.
“It’s constantly checking itself, and its constantly giving feedback to the phone on what’s going on, so the phone can react to what’s actually happening in real life,” he says. “The person is really interacting with the toy, but the toy is interacting with the person at the same time.”
The apps for Sphero will also work with Ollie, including Draw N’ Drive, which follows routes, and Macro Lab, which teaches basic programming. Advanced users can even program in a version of BASIC. And the device itself is hackable, or more so at least than Sphero, which had to be cracked open if you wanted to get at its insides. Ollie opens easier, and later this year Sphero will be releasing a software development kit for it. “You can use it to create your own robots, or create your own things that you want to be able to control with Bluetooth LE,” says Dorris.
And Ollie is fast, up to 14 miles per hour. It’s that speed, along with the clever wheels that make it more of a driving machine than its predecessor. It drifts too, for those fans of The Fast and the Furious who aren’t ready to do so in their cars.
All that speed makes driving it a bit more challenging. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “You get better over time. You learn how to control what you’re doing and get it to do what you want to when you want it to do it,” says Dorris. “It’s kind of this whole idea of mastery, and playing with it for a while. You feel better each time you play with it, because you get better at actually doing it.”