Thursday, 14 January 2016

Sphero Ollie Hands-On Review - Cool Tricks and Coding

Sphero Ollie is a kids robot that can be controlled to do neat tricks or programmed from a tablet. It's a combination of cool tech toy and educational robot.

My 7 year old son was fascinated by Ollie when he saw the promo video. He requested an Ollie as his Christmas present. We were happy to oblige. Just the sort of toy we love: it promotes active play and develops tech skills.

It can be a bit tricky to work out exactly what Ollie is and what it does so in this review we'll take you through the features and capabilities so that you can work out if it's the right robot for your family.


Ollie is a cylindrical robot about 12cm long. You can add various different tyres to change the look and handling of Ollie. 

Ollie is controlled by an app on a phone or tablet. There are joystick style controls and a 'trick pad' that uses touch gestures to trigger tricks. 

This robot is very very fast and does cool tricks like spinning on one end and jumping slightly off the floor. It also lights up and changes colour which creates great effects. 

The Ollie App

Honestly I was expecting a bit more from the Ollie app. There's a very basic tutorial and then you use the joystick and trickpad. 

This is very cool and my 7 year old loves it. The app detects when you perform tricks and tells you about them. And there's some help documentation that tells you about the tricks. 

There's potential for much more here. It would be good to see games where you score points for performing tricks and a more interesting story based tutorial. 

Tricks and Courses

The Ollie tricks are pretty impressive. My son loves showing them off to his friends. 

An Ollie Trap!
If you use Ollie indoors you'll need a reasonable amount of space and you'll want to remove anything delicate, especially while kids are still learning how to use the controls. It's very easy to send Ollie crashing really hard into furniture.

Hard floors and carpets both work and you can adjust the settings in the app to get the best behaviour. 

My son loves building courses for Ollie and getting it to climb ramps and knock things over. One of his first projects was an 'Ollie Trap' where he sent Ollie up a ramp a box. 

I love the active play aspect of Ollie. This isn't a robot that you just control from the sofa. Kids will be up and down setting up challenges and tweaking courses. It's great for developing engineering skills too.

Ollie can be used outdoors too. It's not waterproof though so you'll need to keep it dry.  Modern kids sometimes need an incentive to get outdoors and Ollie is fab for this. We've got a trip to a skate park planned for when it's quiet, we wouldn't want to run into other kids with Ollie.

Ollie's lights and speed mean that it's also fantastic in the dark. 

Programming Ollie

Of course, we like to program our robots. Ollie can be programmed using the Sphero SPRK programming lab app.

SPRK uses drag and drop coding to control Ollie. It will feel familiar to children who have used graphical block based languages such as Scratch and Blockly. 

My 7 year old was able to use SPRK immediately. He just needed help with understanding how to set the tail light of Ollie which tells the app which way it's facing. 

Programming Ollie means you have much better control over what it does. 
Ollie can be controlled quite precisely and can come to a halt quickly. We managed to program Ollie to run up this ramp and then stop at the top without falling off:

SPRK includes a set of sample programs which can be accessed if you create free parent and child accounts and log in. You get access to the accelerometer so there's some pretty advanced robotics that kids can do in an accessible environment. The feedback of getting Ollie to do cool stuff when you get something right is a great motivator. 

SPRK also includes an alternative touch interface for controlling Ollie and changing the colour. 

The Tickle and Tynker apps also work with Ollie which gives even more options for coding with familiar tools. 

For older kids and more advanced coders there's also the orbBasic app which offers text based programming and works with Ollie. 

Power and Connectivity

Ollie is rechargeable via a micro USB cable. There's no on button. Ollie turns on automatically when a Bluetooth connection is made. 

Connectivity is via Bluetooth Low Energy. You don't need to pair Ollie manually. The apps detect Ollie based on proximity (so you can use multiple Ollies in the same room.) 

We've occasionally found that we've had to restart an app to get it to detect Ollie, and on one occasion we had to restart the tablet. Pretty normal for Bluetooth devices in our experience. 

Other Apps

The Sphero Draw app also works with Ollie. You can choose a colour and draw a path for Ollie to follow. Shaking the tablet clears the screen. 

The Tynker kids coding app has an example programming that provides on-screen controls for Ollie. This might be simpler to understand than the main app for younger children. 


Ollie is pretty awesome. It's a very cool tech toy with an impressive wow factor. It encourages active play and gets kids solving engineering challenges without realized how hard they're working. And there's plenty of scope for coding. 

You do have to put some effort in to get those benefits though. Some kids might just do a few cool tricks with Ollie and just show them off when friends and visitors come round. 

If you've got a child who will make the most of Ollie or you're willing to steer them in the right direction then you can really get a lot from this robot. 

You get a lot of tech for your money and the variety of programming apps that support Ollie mean that it works well for a range of ages. Children and teens of different ages will be able to use Ollie or the same child will be able to use it in different ways as they get older. 

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Unknown said...

Can you do a review Ollie vs Ollie Darkside?

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