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Toys and Tabletop Games

Sphero Bolt outsmarts BB-8 with a ton of new sensors

The $150 robot works with existing Sphero software, adds a display and is completely programmable.

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Sphero is returning to its robot ball roots with the Bolt.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sphero, a Boulder-based robotics company, brought BB-8, R2-D2 and Lightning McQueen to life as amazing personality-filled toys. But as you might guess from its name, the company's original focus was all about remote-control balls: Lots and lots of them. To that end, Sphero is returning to its roots this year with a sequel to its original robot ball.

Sphero Bolt is a $150 upgrade to the Sphero SPRK+ that's been available for years in stores and schools, a programmable robot that can be remote-controlled from a phone or tablet. In that sense, Sphero Bolt isn't entirely new. But its features have gotten a major upgrade, adding sensors and connections that could make it a lot more fun to play around with. International pricing wasn't immediately available, but roughly converts to roughly £115 and AU$210.

Bolt's biggest change is an 8 by 8 LED display hovering in its center, which can display a rainbow of lights or be programmed with images and animations. The display can show battery life and the product's name for pairing over Bluetooth, or it can play games and show messages.

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Sphero Bolt also adds four IR sensors to send and receive information between Bolt balls. This is Sphero's first attempt to make robot-to-robot interactions happen, and up to five Bolts within about five meters can communicate. According to Adam Wilson, co-founder of Chief Scientist for the Boulder, Colorado-based Sphero, this could mean programming multiple balls to interact. For classrooms where potentially dozens of balls could be used, things could get interesting.

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The new built-in display can show off images or animations.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Bolt connects with a new simplified Sphero Play phone app, the same app that the company used for its lower-priced Sphero Mini ball last year. That app doesn't lean on Bolt's newest features. Instead, the company's Sphero EDU app will be the main way to unlock ways to make this ball do more things, like program games to run on the ball's little display. The ball works with the hundreds of Scratch programming projects in Sphero EDU already, including weekly instructional videos.

"At some point, the permutations on what can make with the [Sphero SPRK+] kind of dwindle," says Wilson of the decision to add new sensors to Bolt. "With the new inputs and outputs, now you can make anything. Now you have a screen, and now you can see other robots. Now you can actually see light."

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Sphero EDU is definitely school-targeted, but the experience is still open and approachable for parents and kids to use at home, too. I tried playing around with Sphero's EDU app, and its projects and programs are fun to explore, if a little bit daunting. I'd prefer a simpler out-of-the-box experience for home users looking to get into programming and aren't part of a school institution. Sphero's barer-bones Play app, which is the simpler pick-up-and-play way to control Sphero Bolt, is fun but lacks the extra ways to tap into Bolt's newest features.

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Sphero EDU, an app with hundreds of programming ideas and projects, works with Bolt and can be tuned to its new sensors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Also: to have the Bolt talk to other Bolts, you need more than one. At $150 a ball, plus a separate phone or tablets to control each, it becomes a more unlikely home proposition. (A non-phone remote like Sphero's BB-8 Force Band would be nice, but isn't currently on the table).

Sphero Bolt seems like it's trying to land somewhere directly between education and general consumer. Maybe it's not a bad place to land, considering the recent boom in programmable STEM-related robot toys like the Anki Cozmo and Vector and apps like Apple's Swift Playgrounds. The $150 price is lower than some of the company's previous products, like the elaborate Lightning McQueen car, but lacks onboard speakers (sound is played through a connected phone or tablet when running apps and games).

I watch two Sphero balls interact and play through a program during my New York demo, where one ball looks for the other, joins it and then both balls roll off together. That sort of interaction is what could make Sphero's next generation of robots pretty fascinating. It's not all here yet, but Bolt's a start.

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