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Sphero RVR wants to be your future hackable robot kit

It's a mini RC tank-car that could be a whole lot more.

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Sphero RVR, and its see-through top. Other parts can be added on.

Bryan Rowe

At first glance, Sphero's newest robotic toy looks like an RC car.

In a lot of ways, that's what it is. Sphero's co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Adam Wilson, drives the tread-wheeled little tank-thing around with a phone app. It's zippy, can spin and pivot, and has good traction. It also looks cute, but almost like something that came from a Lego Mindstorms set.

That's probably not entirely an accident. RVR (pronounced "rover") isn't a toy: it's a base for robotics to build on. The new $250 robot, coming in September, is really almost like the moving base you might create more things on top of later. If that sounds vague, well... that's because I haven't seen the rest of Sphero's vision yet for RVR. But it sounds a lot like a bridge to the higher-end world of robots on a shoestring budget.

Now playing: Watch this: Sphero RVR is a fully programmable, 'hackable' robot
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Misty Robotics, a spin-off of Sphero, has a hackable robot called Misty II that can prototype advanced ideas like future home and or enterprise robotics... but it costs $2,000. Maybe Sphero RVR can be like the budget kit. RVR costs a fraction of that for the base, and the company will also sell extra parts to put on top that can connect via the robot's serial port. Although it's not arriving until the fall, the RVR's starting as a Kickstarter campaign to build interest (and offer early preorders a $50 discount).

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RVR could get pretty hackable as extra elements are added.

Sphero

What's most interesting about RVR is what it could connect with. It'll interface with Raspberry Pi hardware, Micro:Bit or Arduino processors and add-ons. Wilson says that customized parts will eventually come, too, like Wi-Fi-connected cameras. Add a robot arm, or program in Python or Java? Sure, RVR will work with that, too. Sphero's partnering with Sparkfun Electronics to offer some modules that could be used with RVR, but you could also bring your own parts and attach them to the RVR's top. Theoretically, you could build up a similar set of tools to make a room-aware, motorized mini-Misty robot, if you were so inspired.

Out of the box, RVR starts a lot more simply, as a basic remote-controlled but programmable robot not unlike the company's many robot balls. In addition to two infrared sensors, the RVR also has a new color-sensing module that's come from Sphero's recent acquisition of Specdrums, wearable rings that turn colors into musical notes. The color-sensing tech can be used to read bands of color on cards that help the RVR navigate, or new color-based programming could be created on the fly. (Its total included sensors onboard: color sensor, light sensor, IR, magnetometer, accelerometer and gyroscope.)

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Sphero RVR and its color-coded cards, being read with its color sensor.

Sphero

Much like the other education/home focused Sphero products, it'll work with a more basic remote-control Play app, and a teacher and programming-centered EDU app that's already very integrated with school lesson plans and community-shared programming ideas. But it's the robot's ability to have its top taken off and things glommed on that sets this little robot apart from the company's other closed-off offerings.

The RVR is ruggedized with a roll cage, an ability to drive over my sneakers with its big treads, and it's powerful enough to go up 45-degree angles. Wilson envisions RVR as enabling hackers, students or robotics hopefuls with a solid, moving, navigation-enabled base. Maybe this little robot could be equipped with climate sensors, or room-meshing depth-sensing cameras, or... a snack dispenser.

There's only so much I can tell about RVR right now, because all I got to see in my brief demo was how well the RVR moves around on its speedy treads. But if this RVR can be as open and flexible as what Sphero promises, it could be fascinating, especially compared to similarly-priced but non-expandable robots like Anki Vector.

I'm extremely curious to see what it can do when it rolls around later this year.