"When Sphero was founded back in 2010, the iPad had just been announced. We didn't know anything about how these smart devices would end up in children's hands, but as a company we always had this DNA of wanting to build an inexpensive approachable robot that people could hack on and code and have fun," Paul Berberian, Sphero CEO tells Pocket-lint.
It's the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show and we're on the Sphero stand. We've narrowly avoided being run over by a fork lift truck amongst the hustle and bustle of the Sands Convention Center as dozens of companies work around the clock to be ready for their big reveals. For Sphero, CES 2019 is about Specdrums, a new music-focused coding toy that Berberian hopes will take the company in a different direction - and be the "connected toy" to own this year.
The end of the Disney love affair
Nine years after the original Sphero robot ball was released and the huge rise and fall of the Disney toys in between, the company is looking for a new focus.
"We had to re-evaluate," explains Berberian. "One of those things was that we chose not to re-up on the Disney contracts and we started to double down on what we were seeing as incredible traction inside of schools."
The decision not to continue to produce robotic Disney toys was a tough one, but one that was important for the company.
"We launched a product [Bolt], we had a great early fan base, and it continued to grow with each subsequent product release, and then we met The Walt Disney company and got involved with Star Wars and BB-8 and that was a tremendous time for us. We sold millions of units in a short space of time."
To ride the wave of the Star Wars movies returning after a 10-year hiatus, Sphero's partnership with Disney saw the launch of a smaller version of the on-screen droid BB-8, the new R2-D2 of the newer Star Wars movies. It was hugely popular and went on to spawn other robot toys from the Star Wars franchise and Pixar movies.
"We had this hypothesis that there was this high-end part of the toy business that would appreciate the engineering and detail that we put in our robotic products, so we put a handful of products to Disney. We figured that if you have the right IP [like Star Wars] and the right technology you can create a market for it."
According to Berberian it worked great for BB-8 and then suddenly the interest just stopped even though there were billion-dollar movies behind the products.
"We put a lot of energy into them and a tonne of money behind the toys and built some amazing products," Berberian says with a flash of frustration in his eyes. "If you look at the robotics behind something like Lightning McQueen, it is a phenomenal piece of consumer electronic robotics. It has six separate motors all integrated with each other, really sophisticated stuff that just didn't translate into a commercial success."
Back to the drawing board
Post Disney, Sphero has a new focus, one that has seen it go back to the schools and education system that embraced it so much in the first place.
"I can comfortably say we are the number one robot being used in schools around the world to teach kids how to code. We've sold millions of units and Disney makes up less than half of what we've sold to date," says Berberian. "We didn't want to do yet another 'let's build a robot' kit and we are specifically moving away from character based robots because they can be here today and gone tomorrow. If you don't like the character you won't like the robot, even though it might be perfectly cool."
So, in steps Specdrums. Bought in June 2018, the relatively new company had created an app-controlled ring worn on a user's fingers that turns colour into sound with a simple tap.
"What we are trying to do with Specdrums is try and increase the 'spectrum' of teachers that can use our technology. It is very different from a ball that whizzes around the room, but this is 100 per cent technology from that ball robot."
Completely reworked from the ground up and avoiding the urge to turn it into a Guitar Hero style game for the mobile crowd, Berberian sees the differences, but also the similarities between the new product and the company's robot ball.
"Yes, it doesn't have two motors and wheels, but it has the same Bluetooth, the same colour sensor, the same firmware, the same SDK, and the same optimisations. From a technology standpoint it's the same."
The end result is a fun educational learning tool with a music focus that can be used, most importantly, by music teachers.
"We purposefully went away from that and focused on education and music creation because when we looked at who was using our products in schools. Virtually every teacher had the ability to use a robot ball, even English teachers are using it for the robot balls to be actors to act out a book report, but the music teacher was still left with a tambourine and a recorder.
"They were stuck in the 14th century in terms of technology. Over time you will see us build this tech into our core education app as well as build out music specific lessons for the music teacher who wants to use this over more traditional instruments. We see this as a gateway to other sorts of music learning."
Getting more people coding
It's all about getting more kids coding and coding into more lessons, something the CEO believes they can achieve with Specdrums.
"We wanted to use the smart device that schools have already invested tonnes of dollars into but haven't invested in their music programme. If they just took their smart device that they are already using in their other classes like science and maths and history and brought into the music class, they can give each child a different musical instrument with a tactile feeling to it."
And to mask the educational focus, the company always launches with two apps, one for play and one for learning.
"Even in this case," Berberian adds, "we have an app that's all about making fun music. You don't need to know anything about music, and you can sound good. We put a lot of energy in to making sure you can't make bad music, because we didn't want to create just a 'noise maker'.
For those more interested in learning about music, the company has you covered there too.
"We have another app that is more music-focused. That is essentially a midi synthesiser, so you can choose your instrument like strings, or horns, or piano and this becomes your keyboard. With the music app there will be music theory lessons that teachers will be able to download. Let's talk about octaves, let's talk about majors, let's talk about minor cores, let's talk about harmony, let's talk about beats and rhythm."
It's not just about creating a new musical instrument though:
"As we progress, just like the robot ball, we are hoping the teachers will inform us, just like they did with the original Sphero. The first lessons were really rudimentary, but now we have hundreds of sophisticated lessons. We've learnt from that and changed the software to adapt to that. This is only going to get better over time. We really want teachers to show us what they can do it with."
Don't forget the Bolt just yet
But the company isn't forgetting its heritage either. Berberian tells Pocket-lint that there are still plenty of plans for the robot ball including hinting at a new version aimed at college and university students in the future.
"We will continue to innovate on it, but we are kind of running out of things you can put in a ball. We have some ideas, but right now we are focusing on the new Bolt that came out in 2018. There might be something coming later for high school and college students, but I can't say anything at this point.
One way of growing is to look at how the business can add subscriptions or services to the mix. Services are all the rage for start-ups at the moment and Sphero is looking at what is possible and how it can talk to its 4 million customers.
The possible answer? Masterclasses:
"We ran a small test over the Christmas holidays where we offered one-to-one tutoring to help kids set up their Sphero via video conferencing. For $50 they got an hour with a Sphero expert to get them started. We've done a handful of them and we've had rave reviews."
Our interview comes to an end, and we're played out, with a demo of the new Specdrum.
The tune is a playful little ditty that's unlikely to top the charts, but as Berberian tells us, the musical journey is just beginning - and who knows what the future has in store.