You’re probably familiar with Sphero’s family of spherical, programmable robots. Some are for fun, some for education, and the Bolt is a bit of both.
It’s a tough, waterproof and transparent three-inch rolling robot that’s designed to teach children and grown-ups how to code using the accompanying mobile app, but you can also use it as a toy to terrorize parents and pets.
Price and availability
Our resident tweenager liked the Sphero Bolt a lot, but she doesn’t have to pay for it – and that’s where the biggest problem with the Bolt comes in. With prices starting at $149.99/£149.95/AU$249.99 it’s expensive for what many parents will consider a toy, and the price is likely to rule out having more than one Bolt, too.
However, its price is about on a par with other educational robots. The Bolt is currently slightly less expensive than its closest rival, Anki's Cozmo (a less flexible but more toy-like option) and much more affordable than the Anki Vector (which is part toy, part robot and part family pet).
The cost also becomes more palatable if several Bolts are bought as an investment for a whole class of school children.
Like the original Sphero, the Sphero Bolt is an almost perfect transparent sphere, crammed full of sensors. The most obvious difference between the Bolt and its predecessor is that this one comes with a very bright 8x8 LED display that you can use to show messages, display animations, change colours or respond to input from the on-board sensors. There are no speakers, so sound is handled by the app.
In addition to its Bluetooth connection with your phone or tablet, the Bolt also has infra-red communication so it can work with other Bolts, which could be fun in classrooms. Range is around five metres, Sphero says, and up to five Bolts can play together at a time. It also has a light sensor to detect luminosity and a magnetometer so that the device knows what direction it’s pointing in.
A bigger battery means play time is longer than previous models – around two hours between charges compared to one hour for previous models. A charging cradle is included in the package.
The downside is that a bigger battery needs longer to charge, so while playtime is twice that of previous Spheros so is the charge time. Expect around six hours to fully charge from a flat battery.
The Bolt is controlled via the Sphero Edu app, which is available for iOS (opens in new tab), Android (opens in new tab) and Amazon (opens in new tab) devices. There’s also a desktop version for PC (opens in new tab), Mac (opens in new tab) and Chrome (opens in new tab).
A second app, Sphero Play, is also available in the various app stores for touch-based navigation and general messing around. Parents beware: there’s a Scream Drive setting in that one that makes the Bolt move faster the louder your child screams or shouts at it. You can also use Swift Playgrounds, which offers two Sphero playgrounds: Sphero Arcade and Sphero Template.
If you aren’t familiar with Scratch, it’s very similar in concept to IFTTT (If This Then That): you set out your criteria – the 'this' – and then specify what should happen – the 'that'. For example, you might create a set of instructions that asks if it’s dark and lights up the screen if the answer is yes. MIT has a complete guide and examples (opens in new tab).
If you elect to use the desktop app, it’s worth noting that you can’t run programs directly from it. They need to be opened in the mobile app that’s connected to your Bolt in order to control it, so you need to save them to your library and then open them on your phone or tablet.
What’s it like to play with? We asked an eleven-year-old. “It’s really easy to program,” she said. “You don’t even need a tutorial: the coding blocks are very clearly labelled. There’s a very simple intro and that’s all you need to get going.”
Her favourite feature? “The display. The coolest thing is that you can put wee animations on the light, fading colours into different ones.”
The Sphero Bolt is beautifully engineered, very clever and tons of fun, and it’s clearly going to be a very valuable tool in an educational environment. However, if you’re considering it for your home it does seem like an awful lot of money for something that’s likely to display rude words as it careers into your ankles.
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