Sphero’s Bolt is brilliant way of teaching kids the fundamentals of programming and it’s now better than ever
- Easy to use
- Robust and water-resistant
- Educational possibilities are almost endless
- A little pricey
Think of robots and something like the Sphero Bolt is unlikely to be the first image to spring to mind. You might think of Honda’s retired Asimo, Star Wars’ C-3PO or, if you’re of a certain vintage, Robbie from Lost in Space. You might, if you’re really boring, think of stock picking machines in Amazon warehouses, but a robotic ball will almost certainly not pop into your head.
Unless, of course, you’re a big fan of Sphero and its unique, spherical approach to robotics, in which case this new robot will have you spinning in your seat in excitement.
Sphero Bolt review: What you need to know
The Sphero Bolt is the latest in the company’s line of educational robot toys. It’s a robotic sphere, packed with electronics that, at its most basic, allows it to act as a remote control toy, scuttling at speed around the floor. It comes with a few new features – a matrix display, ambient light sensor and infrared capabilities – but otherwise it’s exactly like its sibling the SPRK+, which has been around for a while.
It’s controlled via Bluetooth from the screen of your tablet or smartphone and recharges via a cup-shaped inductive charging base, which itself takes power via micro-USB. Like previous Sphero products, the Bolt is water resistant and reasonably robust, so it can take a fair bit of abuse as it veers around the floor.
The Sphero Bolt works with a couple of different apps (available on iOS, Android and FireOS). The Sphero Play app forms the entertainment side of things; this allows users to drive the robot around, adjust the speed, and the colour and brightness of Bolt’s LEDs. It also contains a small selection of onscreen games, which are controlled by rotating and tipping the Sphero physically in your hands.
Think of it like a Raspberry Pi with attached motors and sensors enclosed in a spherical, mobile chassis and you’re pretty close to understanding what Bolt can do. It’s surprisingly advanced, too, and if you can’t get your head around how you might use a robotic ball to learn coding just one look at the examples provided within the app will show you quickly the sheer range of what it can do.
My favourite is a simple program, used to transform Sphero into the subject of a physical game of Pong, where you bat Bolt back and forth between two players but there are loads of other clever examples to work your way through as well.
Bolt’s new features merely open up the possibilities of what you can do that much further and the star is that full colour, eight-by-eight LED matrix display. This can be used to show text (scrolling or static), graphics and animations, all of which are simple to create. One example, ready to download, involves a simplified version of Snake, with gameplay taking place entirely on the 8×8 LED matrix display and direction controlled by tilting the ball left, right, forwards and backwards.
Bolt is now also fitted with a light sensor, able to sense various levels of ambient brightness – you could program your Sphero to spin faster, depending on how bright the ambient light is, for instance – and there’s also an infrared transmitter and receiver, which Sphero says will eventually enable multiple Sphero bots to communicate with each other, allowing users to play around what it calls “swarm robotics”. The battery lasts longer in Bolt, too, allowing up to two hours of “play time” before you have to plonk it back on its charging base.
Other than this, Bolt is the same innovative robot as the SPRK+ and is packed with advanced sensors that can be read from and used as a basis for programming projects. As well as new features, you’ll find a gyroscope, accelerometer and compass plus a pair of multicolour LEDs front and aft you can control, in addition to the robot’s motors.
Sphero Bolt review: Price and competition
Sphero’s products offer something unique so there isn’t an awful lot of direct competition for the Sphero Bolt beyond its own stable of products. Among those, Bolt is the most advanced and the most expensive, costing a not inconsiderable £150. The SPRK+ offers most of the same features (minus the screen, light and infrared sensors) but retails for a cheaper price of £115.
One alternative would be to buy your child a Raspberry Pi 3 along with one of the many robotics kits available and try to encourage them to learn to code in that way, but that’s a lot less immediately accessible than a Sphero bot and less fun for the kids when it’s not time to play.
Sphero Bolt review: Verdict
As a cool toy with an educational bent there’s nothing that quite matches a Sphero and the Bolt is the best of this unique range of robotic educational assistants.
It’s simple and accessible – I put this in the hands of my ten-year-old daughter and, thanks to the presence of Scratch, she instantly understood how to create basic programs and get the bot moving – and it’s robust enough to be left in the hands of kids, too.
Coupled with the new features, the Sphero Bolt is a brilliant way of mixing learning and play. It’s pricey, but if you haven’t quite got the funds for the Bolt, the SPRK+ offers a similar range of features for less.