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Sphero SPRK Plus- A Fun Way to Teach Kids About Robotics Programming if Bluetooth Worked More Reliably

Sphero has emerged from just a simple smart toy fad to a serious education platform used by schools as a fun way to teach programming to kids.  Sphero has a Lightning Lab App to program your Sphero which works with all Sphero models but only the SPRK series is packaged to be more education friendly.

The Sphero SPRK+ improves upon the original SPRK edition version by supporting Bluetooth 4.x (Bluetooth SMART) which promises to make your device connection easier through proximity rather than pairing and uses less power.  However, in our testing we still found many compatibility problems with various mobile devices that show the Sphero's transition to Bluetooth 4.x being a rocky one.

Unlike the non-education Sphero models, the Sphero SPRK+ has a clear plastic shell, making it easier to see all the components inside your Sphero.  With this design choice, it's also easier to scratch the outer surface after the Sphero bounces around hitting things.  The Sphero SPRK+ has added a scratch resistant UV coating to address this problem but we still observed minor scratching even after some moderate use.

After purchasing the Sphero SPRK+ online from Best Buy, we were impressed at the packaging that would fit in well in any Apple retail store (where it is also sold).

The packaging shows that the Sphero SPRK+ supports a max speed of 4 MPH and 30 meters (or 100 feet) of wireless range using Bluetooth SMART (Bluetooth 4.x).  It also uses wireless inductive power (which is not Qi compatible) and can last for 60 minutes after a full charge.  It's interesting that the package also uses the USB symbol, even though USB is only used for connecting the wireless charging stand to a power adapter or powered USB port.

Opening up the Sphero SPRK+'s box first shows instructions on where to download the Lighting Lab App.  Note the App runs on iOS, Android, and Amazon Fire, and Chrome browser platforms.  If you are used to coding on a PC or Mac, you will need to use a Chrome Browser to install and run the Lightning Lab App.  However, if you need to still use a separate mobile device with the Lightning App installed (and using the same login that you used when running the Lightning Lab App on the PC/Mac Chrome browser) to connect to the Sphero and run your program on it.

If you still want to write a lot of code with the convenience of a keyboard and a slightly larger screen without using a PC or Mac, the Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard for 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a potentially good option although we found a lot of connectivity issues between the 9.7-inch Pad Pro and the Sphero SPRK+.

Underneath the Lightning Lab documentation, the Sphero SPRK+'s box then reveals the Sphero unit, inductive charging base, and USB cable for the charging base.

Underneath the charging base is the Maze Tape.

The Sphero charging base is an interesting design where you can see the copper inductive charging coils very clearly at the center of the base.

This charging base accepts legacy USB 2.0 based 5 volts @ .5 amps of charging from a USB cable to its USB micro-B connector.

A neat thing about the Sphero SPRK+ design is the inductive coils circling the weight that keeps the Sphero always pointed down.  That means that the Sphero's inductive coils are always lined up correctly to the charging base's inductive coils so you don't have to worry about whether your Sphero's is going to get charged on the charging station.  For other wireless charging products, users often have problems getting the inductive coils aligned correctly so it's great to see Sphero come up with an elegant design to solve that problem.

The Sphero SPRK+ itself looks cool and fun enough to be used by both kids and young adults.

Despite all the potential of the Sphero SPRK+ and the Lightning Lab, there are still many ways for kids to get stuck either due to Bluetooth connectivity issues, power charging problems, or lack of clarity on how to save programs when completing different Lighting Lab activities.  However, if you are patient enough to deal with these issues, the Sphero SPRK+ and the Lightning Lab can be a great educational tool.

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