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Toys and Tabletop Games

Sphero is rolling toward education

Best known for toy robots like the BB-8 and Spider-Man, Sphero is now focusing on robots for the classroom with the Bolt.

Tania González/CNET

It's normal to see people at Sphero riding around the office on a skateboard or a kick scooter.

This playful workplace is home to the company that brought you the app-controlled Star Wars toy droids like the BB-8 and R2-D2. But now, the company is now pivoting to robots designed for creatives.

Now playing: Watch this: How Sphero makes robots educational
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Sphero has just announced its latest rolling robot for teachers and schools with the US$150 Bolt. It's a rolling orb, similar in look and feel to the previous SPRK robot, also targeted toward schools and teachers. Like its predecessor, the Bolt can be controlled and programmed from an app.

I'm at Sphero's design and innovation center in Boulder, Colorado, getting a first-hand look at how the company designs and prototypes its robots.

Products like the Sphero Mini and the new Bolt were conceived in this space. Several rooms are dedicated to building bots, each with a separate focus: 3D printers churn out components in one; a ventilated paint room for spraying decals and designs sits at the back of the office; and there's even an electrostatic testing station where robots get zapped with high voltages to make sure static doesn't build up inside the ball.

Changing focus to products for the classroom is what Adam Wilson, founder and chief software architect at Sphero, calls a "swing in the pendulum."

With the Sphero EDU app, teachers can find programs created by other educators for the SPRK and Bolt. Combined with the rolling robots themselves, the company's hoping this "curriculum" will convince kids that getting involved with technology from an early age can be a lot of fun.

"So you can learn the Pythagorean Theorem using the robot ball and it just sticks a lot more than when you're just learning it on paper," says Wilson.

With characters like Lightning McQueen and SpiderMan, Sphero learned a lot about turning an inanimate robot into a lovable companion you want to play with all the time. The next step, then, is to translate traits from those characters into a robot ball that doesn't have eyes or facial features. "Simple sounds, gestures, movements and the way they come to life are really important. Like when it turns on. It's almost like you're a MacBook, this sound like brings you comfort," says Wilson.

Watch the video above for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sphero space, see how Bolt was made and more on why the company is betting big on products for education.

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