It’s been a year since Sphero’s education-centric robotic ball, SPRK, hit the market. With much praise from educators and parents alike, the company has rolled out the second iteration aptly named SPRK+. The spherical toy is cousins with Star Wars’ BB-8, but smarter and more user-friendly. It won’t hitch rides on Dameron’s X-wing or whip out a flame in good gesture, but this little SPRK+ is just the bot to inspire STEM education in kids.
Inside the box
It’s similar to unboxing a new iPhone; the box is sleek and worth keeping. The contents inside are neatly packaged and displayed. In particular, SPRK+ comes with a slew of accessories: a wireless charger, a protractor, and a roll of maze tape. The accessories, except the charger, are tailored towards hands-on learning, and you’ll see that as we explore what SPRK+ offers.
Get on the ball
If you’ve ever owned SPRK, you’ve probably become used to the dull, gray appearance the robot gives off. It’s not exactly eye-candy, but it does well at giving kids a peek at the electrical and mechanical components or gizmos inside. With SPRK+, however, Sphero has given the robotic ball an aesthetic makeover. The company’s blue color is shown throughout, even the PCB is “Sphero blue.” It’s a minor improvement from the dullish gray we saw in the original SPRK.
In addition, the internal LEDs are brighter (or at least appear that way under the less-opaque plastic housing). It still sports a dozen million colors in total. I prefer orange, but there’s still blue, pink, green, and a bunch of other colors save for brown, gray, and black. All of these colors are packed into a plastic shell, harder but smoother than before. It’s incredibly durable and smooth to the touch; even water can’t get through.
Connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth, SPRK+ pairs more than twice as fast as before. Simply touch your smartphone (with Bluetooth on of course) to SPRK+ and voila. The companion app, Lightning Lab, is available for iOS and Android devices and serves as the main interface between user and robot. The app is seamless in design and user experience; it’s simple enough any kid can use it.
Like MIT’s Scratch, Lightning Lab lets kids program SPRK+ through drag-and-drop programming. It’s not text-based but it does cover main concepts in computer programming. Terms such as loops, events, and operators can be dragged and dropped to create visual programs for SPRK+ to execute.
If anything’s changed since we last tried out Lightning Lab, it’s Sphero’s push with collaborative activities. In the app there are activities and programs users can view and try. Things like maze-solving programs that take use of the included maze tape and protractor. Programs can be shared by other users, so it’s all in the name of hands-on, collaborative learning. This is definitely a plus if you’re a teacher wanting to keep a classroom of kids entertained with a rolling, glowing ball that is SPRK+. There are literally dozens of shared programs, so many that we couldn’t try all them out.
You can’t teach an old ball new tricks
Between the new SPRK+ and the old SPRK, color is the biggest difference. The logo, the inner wheels, and the circuit board are all blue. It’s an eye-catching redesign from the first generation, but nothing more. Bluetooth connectivity and LED brightness have been improved, but these improvements are subtle. We’ve tested Bluetooth pairing with SPRK and SPRK+, and they both connect to the smartphone within seconds of each other. SPRK+ is faster at pairing, taking around one second compared to five seconds with the original SPRK.
Lightning Lab is compatible with both versions of SPRK, so it’s not an exclusive feature tailored towards the newest of the two robots. If you already own a SPRK, you can probably hold out on upgrading to the plus. If you do not already own one, pick this one up and be done with searching for other kid-friendly programmable robots. It’s important to note SPRK+ is made for kids ages eight and above.
Now in color!
Sphero SPRK+ boasts a polished look and feel. It's kid-proof with a scratch-resistant and waterproof housing. The robotic ball is ideal for beginner programming with its simple drag-and-drop app. However, SPRK+ lacks noticeable upgrades compared to the original and cheaper version.