As BB-8 rolled out for its big-screen debut in 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” an audience of Sphero employees inside Century Theatre in Boulder immediately noticed the same thing: The new droid sounded different from the toy robot the Boulder company had designed, developed and started selling in stores a few months earlier.
“We were so familiar with the robot at that time. We noticed onscreen that these were different sounds. They were a little different from what we put in our robot,” said Adam Wilson, who, with Ian Bernstein, co-founded Sphero in 2010. “We updated the app and pushed the new sound to BB-8 to make it film perfect.”
Sphero’s ability to update its toys long after a customer buys one is a way that the company shares its passion for robotics with a growing audience. Another way: Sphero makes toys that cause people to smile, while giving children a glimpse into the world of computer programming. And the way toymaking starts is with the people of Sphero, including anyone from Wilson to executive assistant Jasmine Kuliasha, a mother of two.
Wilson recently tag-teamed with Anya Grechka, a mechanical engineer, and Dave Hygh, principal firmware engineer, and other members of the prototyping team to design a tiny circuit board to show that a smaller ball robot could be made. Sphero Mini debuted in stores in September, costing $50, a much lower price than its past robots.
Kuliasha pitched an idea for a toy at Sphero Product Accelerator, the company’s biannual week-long brainstorming meeting. Although she’s not an engineer, she drew some sketches and presented her idea.
“It’s a much cheaper, smaller idea that everyone really liked. It could go viral,” said Wilson, who said Kuliasha then worked with engineers for a week to build a prototype. “Then we go through this thing called Phase Gate where we look at it again. Does it make sense? Should we invest all the money to build the tools and all that? And actually, … it just passed through Phase Gate. The product is going to be made by Sphero.”
Bringing robots to life
“Yawwnnnn! I feel a power nap coming on,” loudly sighed Lightning McQueen, Sphero’s first race car that mashes robotics, animation and a sense of humor. McQueen, abandoned on a couch in Sphero’s office, apparently felt ignored as Wilson and other employees played with “Star Wars” droids such as R2-D2 and BB-9e, a new droid in the upcoming “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi,” which opens Thursday.
Wilson rubbed Lightning McQueen’s head, which soothed the red racer that stars in Disney’s “Cars” movies. McQueen has reactive-touch sensors that respond with a noise or twitch. Its windshield is an LCD screen to truly animate Lightning’s eyes and character.
“There’s like six motors and all that stuff going on in there. We knew that to bring it to life was going to be expensive and complicated,” Wilson said. “We said, ‘Let’s just focus on bringing him to life.’”
Sphero scored a gold mine of potential characters — and funding — when it teamed up with the Walt Disney Co., starting in 2014. Its original BB-8 caused a frenzy, quickly selling out in stores nationwide.
Last year, it launched SPRK+, taking its original robot and creating an educational program to expose kids to computer programming. Sphero robots are now in more than 6,000 schools nationwide, with students using the balls to re-create the planets and their orbits and do other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities. All of its robots have some sort of custom-programming feature.
This year, Sphero launched a half-dozen robots, a record number for the company. Most are based on Disney brands of Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar. It was also the first year Sphero expanded beyond rolling robots.
Sphero’s version of Spider-Man doesn’t even move. The company took a different approach to giving life to the Marvel comic book character. It’s more like an Amazon Echo personal assistant, with an attitude.
“For Spidey, how can you bring him to life in two different ways? One was animatronics like movement and motion. The other is depth. He remembers me and knows what I’m talking about. He knows, when I answer the joke, that I’m right,” Wilson said. “That’s the other way to bring it to life.”
Sphero’s SPA meetings, which started after the success of 2015’s BB-8 robot and more than $100 million from investors, have become the pipeline for future Sphero toys. “Think about connected playing cards or little toys, or mini toys or desktop toys, so you can have families playing with stuff and moving stuff around your desk,” Wilson hinted.
The funding helped the company more than double its staff, to 160 people, compared with its BB-8 days. They’ve also invested in homemade software, such as Robot Animator, an animator’s tool that lets animators design a robot’s move and then push the “Go to Robot” button to turn it into code.
But before a toy is created, Sphero poses two questions: Does the company want to make it? Will people want to buy it?
Something that didn’t make the cut? A flying quadcopter. It was too much to build from scratch, Wilson said. “We’re really good at ground-based robots. Let’s stick with that.”
Same goes for Star Wars’ C-3PO. “Making a walking droid is really hard, so that got pushed to the side,” he said. “But we made BB-9e, which is another round droid. It made perfect sense for us, plus it’s really cool.”
After the success of BB-8, Disney was very open to the company exploring its universe.
“We could do ships, playsets, anything we could dream of. They asked us to pitch it to them,” Wilson said. “A lot of those got whittled away till it got to the things we wanted to do: R2, BB-9e.”
But just like the BB-8 before, Disney gave its blessing even though it didn’t share many specifics about the new droid with Sphero’s team. The company has limited knowledge of what BB-9e’s character is like or how much screen time it will have in the new flick. But Wilson said that he can confirm that BB-9e is definitely on the dark side.
“We had to design and build a robot that’s not in one of the movies yet,” he said. “Usually, what’s involved is interacting with Disney at a very close level, getting little screen shots and little animated parts of the movie. … And then a lot of it is a yes-or-no game. We bring it to life and ask, ‘Is this what it’s supposed to be like?’ ‘No.’” OK, we try it again. ‘Is this what it’s supposed to be like?’ ‘Yes, exactly like that.’ We end up working all the no’s out.”
Building an empire
The consumer robot market will reach about $5.8 billion in sales this year, according to ABI Research. By 2025, sales of consumer robots are expected to reach $17 billion, buoyed by the rise in home and companion robots.
Toy robots are just a small fraction of the market, but it’s influencing the design of others. “In targeting the younger demographics, toy robot vendors will develop systems that have better body-language design, general design and ergonomics,” said Rian Whitton, ABI’s resident robotics expert. “That could influence other sectors like larger social robotics and collaborative robots.”
The electronic-toys market is in the $2.1 billion range, according to the Consumer Technology Association. And Sphero sits in a niche of app-controlled or connected toys that made $291 million in sales this year, up 14 percent from 2016. But such connected toys are growing at double the rate of electronic toys overall, said Steve Koenig, CTA’s senior director of market research. The niche is expected to grow 28 percent next year, to $372 million, which will be 16 percent of all e-toys revenues.
“Using an app, you’ll need a smartphone — whether it’s Mom’s or Dad’s or a brother’s or sister’s. These connected toys are geared to older children,” Koenig said. “But let’s face it — BB-8, Sphero, those are for adults, too.”
And Wilson may be the perfect adult doing a kid’s job. His title recently changed to chief creative officer, so he’s part of every new project. Sphero CEO Paul Berberian, an early mentor to Wilson and Bernstein, handles the business side.
In Wilson’s sparsely decorated office, a shelf is dedicated to some of his favorite robots — including Pixar’s WALL-E, K-2SO from the “Star Wars” movie “Rogue One” and Johnny 5 from the 1986 movie “Short Circuit.” Wilson’s home is about the same: “It’s all me and my robots. I am the kid. I have over a million Legos. I have a lot of toys.”
On his desk, several homemade robots remind him of where the industry is going next: Rosie the humanoid robot maid from the 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons.”
“Ian and I are both very passionate about making a robot that’s sort of like Rosie the robot. Something that would do the dishes and know what’s on TV and interact with you socially in your home,” Wilson said. “Ian and I built a bunch of prototypes and built a whole team in Sphero that was focused on that technology, like mapping the room, identifying what’s on TV. We built that together and ran that group for a long time in Sphero. Maybe two years internally. Eventually, we realized it did not match very well with the toys. … But it was something we were so passionate about, we couldn’t just let it die.”
In June, Bernstein spun off Misty Robotics to create that home robot. It has worked out well.
“I’m actually a little more fun and outgoing. Ian is a little bit more serious than me and it was like (Bernstein said): ‘I’m going to stick with home robot, you make sure the toys are fun,’” Wilson said. “We’re still really good friends. They’re right down the road. We talk about robots all the time.”