Sphero Creates BOLT of Excitement | Tech Review

Exciting new communication features—including an LED light matrix—are the standout elements of the Sphero BOLT, the latest in the company's line of robots that teach kids to code.

The newest member of the expanding family of Sphero robots—the aptly named Sphero BOLT ($149.99)—brings an exciting new charge to the coding experience. The most obvious new feature distinguishing the BOLT from its predecessors is an LED light matrix set in the center of the main carriage of BOLT’s clear shell. The BOLT comes packed with several significant invisible upgrades from previous Sphero robots that will impact the student and classroom experience, especially classrooms with multiple BOLTs.

BOLT comes with programming and hardware that make it easier to use, and allow it to better sense the world around it, including other BOLTs. BOLT has an auto-aiming function that takes some of the awkwardness out of getting the Sphero rolling in the right direction. If necessary, it is possible to manually aim the BOLT by adjusting the taillight—as done with earlier Sphero iterations—but auto-aim will make it faster and easier for kids to quickly set the BOLT to rights. There is also a collection of more advanced sensors for speed, pitch, direction and distance, and ambient light. These sensors collect and record data while programs run, giving users recorded empirical data and more control over the way the BOLT moves through and responds to its environment.

Coming to Life

The two most exciting features of the BOLT are the light matrix and BOLT-to-BOLT infrared communication. The light matrix is genuinely beautiful. The 8 x 8 matrix can be programmed to display colors in a full rainbow, much like the lights in the Sphero SPRK+. It comes preprogrammed with dozens of colorful symbols and multi-panel animations. Programming custom images and animations is fairly intuitive. It is not overstating to say that the light matrix brings the BOLT to life. It gives the BOLT the ability to do something no Sphero has been able to do until now—talk back. Skilled programmers will be able to make the BOLT display images to communicate different stages in their program. Students can now use BOLT to communicate with scrolling messages and well-placed images and animations. Would you like to count the number of times BOLT hits an obstacle in its programmed path? Set a counter in your program and display the number in the light matrix.

The other exciting feature is BOLT-to-BOLT infrared communication. This won’t mean a lot to those with only one BOLT, but being able to program BOLT to respond to other BOLTs adds a layer of collaboration that didn’t exist until now, and it will have a profound impact on classes with a full class set. Added to the light matrix, it gives students a Sphero that not only talks to its programmer, but also talks to other Spheros. Communication between robots opens a wide range of new challenges, naturally raising collaboration and engagement.

The design elements that made previous Spheros great are still present in the BOLT. It is advertised to have a battery life of over two hours of continuous play, which seems to be accurate upon testing. When BOLT does start to fade, the inductive charging cradle charges it quickly and easily. The Bluetooth wireless connection to the Sphero EDU app is seamless and reliable. The clear outer shell is very tough. This reviewer’s BOLT went down stairs, ran into countless walls and furniture, took a spin in the bathtub, and was chased (and caught) many times by an overzealous cat, and remains unscratched. The tough shell is particularly important considering one cannot take full advantage of the BOLT’s LED array with a protective cover in place.

App and options

As Sphero robots have grown and advanced, so too has the collaborative network for educators, students, and makers. The Sphero EDU app has that community built into it, including projects, tutorials, and programs created by Sphero employees, kids, and educators. Teachers and librarians who have never used a Sphero device of any kind can find help and resources quickly. The app itself scaffolds programming skills by allowing users to program Sphero in three ways. Beginners can simply draw a path or try their hand at interlocking block code. Experienced programmers can dig in deeper by coding in JavaScript text. The Sphero EDU app does have a social media element to it, so keep that in mind when setting up devices and class sets. Teachers and parents will want a login in order to access crowd-sourced activities, but students do not need to be signed in to operate or program robots. Two classroom sets of Sphero BOLTs are available. The Sphero BOLT 15 pack ($1,949.99—available exclusively to educators) contains 15 BOLTs, inductive charging cradles and USB cables, stickers and protractors. A Sphero BOLT Power pack ($2,499.99) is also available, containing everything in the 15 pack as well as a case that can both charge and store the robots, Turbo Covers, and Maze Tape, for a more portable classroom setup.

VERDICT: With the BOLT, Sphero has taken its small but mighty rolling robot to a new heights. The LED light array, advanced sensors and data collecting capabilities, and robot-to-robot communication open up a new realm of creative and collaborative programming.

Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at Westminster Schools in Atlanta.

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