Small startups can have some of the biggest dreams, just ask Sphero. Shortly after becoming the darling of 2012’s CES, the annual consumer electronics industry conference, thanks to its eponymous robotic toy, CEO Paul Berberian revealed that the app-controlled ball was only the start for the Tech Stars firm. “What we’re really trying to do—if you dig into our SDK—it’s all pretty abstracted from the ball,” said Berberian in an unpublished March 2012 interview. In other words the software that drove Sphero also propels the super-cute BB-8 in the upcoming Star Wars film. And of course it also run the $150, app-enabled BB-8 toy droid that will tear up the toy aisle this holiday shopping season.
But the company’s big secret is that Sphero’s API isn’t confined to just rolling a round object. According to Berberian, their code can be used to propel anything that moves in three-dimensions. “Just because it’s connected to a ball, it moves the ball,” he said. “But if we were to connect it to anything—a car, a helicopter, a boat, a submarine, a forklift—it’s the same command set.”
And toys are only the beginning. As Berberian explained three years ago, the company viewed toys and gaming as a way to work through some of the challenges associated with moving objects with a smartphone controller, without letting people down when the object didn’t necessarily perform as expected.
“You have to initially start with applications that have a high tolerance for experimentation,” said Berberian. “Gaming is a very forgiving environment where people are willing to try new things.” And they’re also willing to push toys like Sphero and BB-8 further than expected, with much less risk than if they overdid it with an app-controlled dump truck or construction crane.
But make no mistake about it, that is where the world is headed—at least if Sphero gets its way. From Sphero to Ollie (its cylindrical follow up) to BB-8, the company has continually refined their technology. BB-8, with its adept handling, ability to take voice cues, and Lucasfilm-level of app polish is lightyears ahead of the original Sphero. And here’s the scary part: according to Berberian, Sphero represents about 1% of the software’s potential.
In order to know with pinpoint accuracy where a machine is relative to the user, he said, the company has to take object tracking and recognition into account, things we’re beginning to see in the way the BB-8 toy explores a space in its patrol mode. “All of this core technology is being built out so at least at the onset it’s going to make the creation of some really fun games happen,” said Berberian. “But ultimately… it could be posted out and put into different applications.”
At the time, the CEO said the vision of the company was “to build out their technology, build an incredible little magical hardware platform that allows you to write commands and build really cool games, sell a whole bunch of them, and see what evolves over time.” But when pitching the company to investors, it’s easy to see the potential beyond the ball. This is what helped the company land in the Disney Accelerator in 2014, which in turn led to them building the ball droid for the film, and developing the toy for the masses.
Now infused with Disney (DIS) magic (or Disney money—the entertainment giant was a part of a $45 million venture round this past June, bringing Sphero’s haul to more than $90 million in all), they’re poised to become the ultimate power in the app-controllable object universe.
Early on, said Berberian, Sphero was approached by someone in the military about moving airplanes around the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. It’s a challenging task because of tight quarters, odd angles, and poor sight lines. “They started talking about these elaborate things and I said, ‘I don’t know if you want to use your iPhone or Android to control an F-18 on a carrier deck, but it may be coming at some point.’” Like I said, big dreams. I mean, it’s not lifting an X-Wing out of a swamp with your mind, but it’s a start.
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