Sphero might be best known for their brilliant Star Wars robots - R2-D2 and BB-9E are all kinds of awesome. But the company is about more than making nifty playthings. The Sphere Mini is a spherical robot that acts as a gateway for kids to get into programming, as well as a funky little gaming device.
The Sphero Mini is about the size of a ping-pong ball. The outer casing can be separated to reveal the real magic - a small robot that is controlled wirelessly using an app (I used an iPhone 7 Plus but there's an Android version of the app as well). Range is rated as ten metres and the device has a 45 minute battery life. You'll need to extract the body from inside the casing to charge it using the supplied USB-mini cable. The robot comes with a charging cable, a long legal guide and a set of tiny bowling pins and witches hats for honing your navigation skills.
The app, when first launched, revealed two problems for me.
After installing the app and connecting the Sphero Mini, I started playing with its various navigational functions. There's the familiar touchscreen navigation we've seen with the other Sphero robots. Drag your finger across the screen and the robot responds appropriately - assuming you've calibrated correctly so it knows the difference between left and right. But there's also facial navigation. Smiling, frowning and winking can be used to drive the Sphero Mini around as well.
Even while wearing a cap and glasses, the robot was able to respond to my facial expressions as I drove the robot around my desk and floor. I did drive it off the edge of the desk a few times and, while the outer case did open a couple of times, it snapped back together with no ill effects.
Once I'd finished messing around with basic navigation it was time to get into programming the Sphero Mini.
As well as the Sphero Mini app, there's a Sphero Edu app that lets you program the Mini so you can make it move, change it's LED colour respond to input from its sensors such as the gyroscopes, or respond to events such as collisions. As you get more into programming the Mini, the app lets you also define variables and functions.
There are lots of online resources for parents, kids and teachers so you can get kids, or the child within, into creating software.
I also installed the Sphero app on an iPad Air 2. Sphero has a pretty solid relationship with Apple and this is reflected in the ability to use the Swift playgrounds app - designed to get kids engaged in developing using Apple's Swift language - to control many of Sphero's robots.
Alas, the templates in the Swift Playgrounds' library don't yet support the Sphero Mini - just their other products including BB-8, BB-9E, R20D2 and the SPRK+. However, Playgrounds support is expected to come soon.
If you're looking for a great Christmas present that will engage your child and get them into software development, then the Sphero Mini is a great idea. At just $80, it won't break the bank. Assuming you already have a smartphone or tablet they can use (even an old one without cellular comms will do the trick) it's a low-cost entry to the world of creating software that is far more engaging than typing lots of code.