Sphero’s new SPRK+ robotic orb features improved Bluetooth and a more robust shell

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The Sphero SPRK, the orbicular glowing robot that jumps and spins on command, is a nifty little thing. Pair it to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, then download the companion software, and a few simple taps will have you revving its motors and cycling its multicolor LEDs through a rainbow of patterns.

It’s far from perfect, though: the remote-controlled orb can’t pair to multiple devices, for instance, and sports a polycarbonate shell that’s prone to nicks and cracks. But Sphero is rectifying those and other issues with a new model, the Sphero SPRK+, which is due out in the coming weeks.

The Sphero SPRK+ is more a refinement than a redesign. The new sphere is focused specifically on tech education — that is to say, teaching kids and teens to code — and to that end packs an updated version of Bluetooth that supports pairing with multiple devices (think a classroom environment). It’s also got a scratch-resistant translucent skin that should be less susceptible to any bruises budding programmers might inflict than its predecessor was. But the hardware is otherwise identical to the first-generation Spark, which is largely a good thing: it’s compatible with the wall charger of the last-generation Sphero SPRK and accessories made for older Sphero devices, a well as the more than 25 third-party apps on Android and iOS that support it.

The Sphero SPRK+ also works with Sphero’s long-in-development learning tool Lighning Lab. It’s an app that lets beginning users automate the bot with OVAL, a visual program language that involves dragging and dropping commands around a timeline. OVAL is designed specifically to accommodate developers of all skill levels. Newbies can quickly whip up a routine that’ll have the SPRK+ traveling between two points and changing colors, while advanced programmers can use code to tap into Sphero’s gyroscope, motor, processor, and other hardware.

In an update shipping alongside the Spark+, the Lightning Lab is gaining sound effects that intrepid young developers can add to their programs, plus a news feed that’ll keep users abreast of upcoming enhancements. And it now highlights both Sphero-supplied and community-made activities — guided experiences that help teach the basics of the SPRK+. Some, like navigating through a virtual maze and completing a boat enclosure, are relatively straightforward, while others, like making art and simulating planetary motion, require a tad more forethought. And still others are designed to supplement science, technology, and math curriculum in K-12 classrooms.

The SPRK+ will retail for $130 when it hits store shelves later this year — the same price as its predecessor.

The SPRK has come a long way since 2011, when the spherical robot was derided by some as an “overpriced cat toy.” Spherolaunched the Ollie, an RC device “engineered for high performance” and speeds of up to 14 miles per hour, at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2014. The current-gen SPRK, meanwhile, is in use in 1,000 schools, and a Star Wars-themed variant, the BB-8, was recently released to blockbuster success: last year on launch day, the company sold more than 2,000 of the $150 models “every hour.”

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