Friday, 1 September 2017

Sphero R2-D2 and BB-9E - Programmable Droids



Sphero have announced two new droids for Force Friday and ahead of the upcoming Last Jedi movie. There's a new spherical droid called BB-9E and a non-spherical R2-D2.

Of course, what we really want to know at Tech Age Kids is whether the new droids are programmable. Let's find out if these are the droids we're looking for.



Sphero BB-9E

It seems that BB-9E is a droid from the upcoming Last Jedi movie. BB-9E is similar to BB-8 but with a different (lampshade!) shaped head and dark colouring - we think it's likely that this new droid is on the dark side.

BB-9E had an LED on its head which uses inductive charging, which is a great bit of tech.

Sphero R2-D2

R2-D2 is a detailed droid with a third leg that can be positioned for moving around.

It also has a built-in speaker rather than relying on a connected device for sounds effects.

There's a lot of detail in this droid and I suspect it will appeal to parents as well as kids!

Coding

The Sphero product pages for the robots don't yet mention coding. They mention lots of cool entertainment features like holograms, interaction between bots and watch-with-me movie functionality. 

However, coding is supported for both products. We just had to dig a little deeper to find out about it.

This lack of visibility of the coding features in the promotional material is interesting, especially in a year where there are loads of coding toys being promoted for STEM education. I guess this is to make sure that the products appeal to Star Wars fans who aren't interested in the coding aspect and might otherwise see the product as a coding toy rather than a grown up geek toy. It's neat that Sphero have managed to achieve both.

Coding with Swift - BB-9E and R2-D2

The Swift Playgrounds learning app teaches Apple's new Swift programming language and it has been updated with support for both R2-D2 and the spherical droids including the new BB-9E. This is pretty cool. 

This support is looking pretty cool. R2-D2 has a series of lessons broken up with cut scenes that provide backstory context for the coding. There's support for setting the position of the third leg, walking, playing sounds, positioning the dome head, controlling the LED and detecting whether there's a storm trooper nearby. 

For kids who love Star Wars thing really adds context to coding and looks like lots of fun. 

For the spherical droids (Sphero, SPRK+, BB-8 and BB-9E) there's a less fleshed out code template that can be used as the starting point for coding. You can access sensors, roll around, set the main LED colour (and others where available.) 

You can also use the template with R2-D2 which gives you access to a different (but overlapping) set of functions.

This support is already in the Swift Playgrounds app so the functionality is available at launch which is pretty neat. 

Coding with Sphero EDU

Sphero EDU is Sphero's educational app that teaches coding and scientific concepts. It uses a block-based language and JavaScript. 

Sphero have announced, via an FAQ, that BB-9E will be programmable via Sphero EDU later this fall. It's brilliant that we've got advance notice of this. When BB-8 came out it didn't get SPRK Lightning Lab (as the app was called then) support immediately and Sphero didn't say that it was definitely coming. 

Another FAQ mentions that R2-D2 will also be getting Sphero EDU support which is fantastic news.  

This means that Star Wars fans don't have to choose between entertainment and education - they can have both (and both at the same time as well!)

Verdict

Yes, these are the droids we are looking for in terms of cool use of tech and support for coding. 

We're a little cautious that these new programmable droids have more boy appeal that girl appeal whereas the original Sphero and the SPRK+ are much more neutral (although the detail colour has always been blue.) The Star Wars franchise does seem to be featuring more strong female characters so this is a bit less of a concern than it might have been. 

Lots of girls will love them (I would have been one of those girls!) but we'd like to see some more gender-neutral or girls-first kit from Sphero in future. 




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