All posts in “Sphero”

Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics launches a robot for programmers

Recent Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics brought a decidedly non-consumer-focused device to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week. The Misty I Developer Edition is the first baby step for a startup with even grander ambitions than the one that gave birth to it. In June, the company announced a $11.5 million Series A led by Venrock and Foundry Group to aide in its plans to build a mainstream household robot with a much broader skillset than the industry leading Roomba.

An early attempt at that will arrive later this year, in the form of Misty II, a more highly-polished and commercially-minded version of the company’s robotic’s platform. For now, however, its focus is far more narrow, with plans to court developers, as it works to build something more suitable for the home market.

Misty I Developer Edition is sort of the Apple I to the Misty II’s Apple II. There will likely be a developer version of the II, but the company’s forgoing the consumer version of the I. It’s all understandably a little convoluted a first glance, but the startup’s working on getting its sea legs, as it prepares for the seemingly impossible: a home robot that can do it all. In a briefing in a hotel suite at CES this week, CEO Tim Enwall and Head of Product Ian Bernstein laid out a fairly grandiose roadmap for me.

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It’s a ten-year plan, according to Enwall, and the startup’s investors have apparently agreed to that extremely long runway. After all, someone has to bring robots into the mainstream, right? So why not Misty? Bernstein was the founder and CTO of Sphero, which quickly moved from remote control ball to Disney darling, and Enwall headed up Revolv, which ultimately got sucked up into Google/Nest.

There’s a small army of Misty I’s in the hotel suite when we meet the team. Bernstein puts one on the floor and fires it up. It has the body type of ET: The Extraterrestrial, balanced on four wheels and constructed out a black plastic exoskeleton, that’s maybe a touch more Xenomorph. As Misty (referred to primarily as a “she” by her creators) fires up, a pair of dots inside two brackets simulate some semblance of eyes on what resembles a blue screen of death. 

When fully operational, the eyes are a bit more lifelike, though still early stages. There’s nothing here akin to the animated personality Anki has developed for Cozmo by assembling a team of animators from places like Pixar and Dreamworks. In fact, much about this first Misty model is rudimentary, and that’s kind of the point. The robot fills a similar role as Willow Garage’s bygone Turtlebot or iRobot’s Create, offering developers a way to build ideas on a robotics platform.

It’s a far more limited offering, however. Enwall tells me that it takes his team four to six hours to build a unit, totaling around five to ten units a week. It’s not exactly a sound business model in the long term. Instead, the company will be vetting potential developers through its online platform, and hopefully building up an ecosystem of software ahead of the Misty II’s launch.

Bernstein walks us through some of the quick and dirty features early developers have programmed in at a recent hackathon. In the most compelling demo, Misty I uses her on-board camera and facial recognition to detect people. When she sees them, she zips back on her wheels as if startled. It’s a far cry from the security and smart home connectivity planned for its already announced successor, but it’s a start.

Fittingly, it all feels a bit like watching a baby takes its first tenuous steps. It’s the first public-facing movements of a startup that has a long road of ahead of it — a prospect that’s at once frightening and hopeful.

Black Friday’s best tech bets

Thanksgiving is all about family, friends and gratefulness. The following day, on the other hand, is dedicated to rampant consumerism and generally attempting to not get trampled by a stampede of fellow deal seekers — the reason for the season, as the saying goes.

Writing about tech for a living means our inboxes have been bombarded by Black Friday deals over the past few weeks. Digging through all of the seasonal sales can be every bit as overwhelming as the shopping experience itself, so in honor of making your Thanksgiving weekend slightly less stressful than it has to be, here’s a roundup of some of the best tech deals you’ll find a week from today.

Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics gets $11.5 million to create a mainstream robot for the home

Hardware startup Misty Robotics has a daunting task ahead of it. The Boulder-based company is working on a robot aimed at mainstream consumers for employment in the home and office. But Misty certainly has a solid foundation, as a spinoff of robotic toy maker Sphero, coupled with an $11.5 million Series A led by Venrock and Foundry Group.

The new company employs about half a dozen former Sphero ex-pats, including co-founder Ian Bernstein, who will be Misty’s Head of Product. Bernstein and team have been working on the seeds of Misty’s first product under the Sphero banner for roughly a year and a half, ultimately opting to spin it off into a new company, given its vastly different — and decidedly more ambitious — goals.

“At some point it just made sense for Sphero to focus on connected play,” Bernstein tells TechCrunch. “And it would make sense to spin off a company so we can raise more money and go bigger and faster on this idea of an autonomous robotic being in the home and office.”

Founded as Orbotix in 2010, Sphero has seen rapid growth in the past several years as it’s transformed itself from a niche maker of a smartphone-controlled robotic ball into a full-fledged Disney co-conspirator. The company rocketed to success when its first product became the basis of the remote-controlled BB-8, a wildly successful Star Wars tie-in. Since then, the partnership has  produced new Cars and Spider-Man toys.

But Misty’s offering is something else entirely. The company isn’t ready to reveal much in the way of details at this early stage, except to say that it’s planting the seeds for more mainstream devices. It’s understandable, of course, that it’s fairly modest in its projections. Countless companies have tried to bring consumer robotics to the home, but have largely failed through some combination of half-baked technologies and impossible-to-meet consumer expectations.

For a robot to succeed in the home, it has to be affordable, capable and serve some task that people either can’t or simply don’t want to perform. Only iRobot’s Roomba has come close. The product has found success, but even so, its one-note functionality feels underwhelming compared to the expectations science-fiction has been feeding us for decades. But products like it and Amazon’s Echo are slowly opening the door to more technology in the home. Though Misty tells me it believes a truly mainstream consumer robot is still “several years” away.

“We don’t believe it’s time for a mainstream robot,” says CEO Tim Enwall, who also founded Google-owned home automation company Revolv. “We don’t believe there [is currently] a market for it. What we do believe is that there will be a robot in everyone’s home and office and there is a progression to that process. And that progression, like every other technology we’ve ever adopted as humans, doesn’t start with a mainstream market. It starts with an innovator market.”

Misty’s first several products will be targeted at the hobbyist/maker market — something more akin to where desktop 3D printing and drones have been for the past decade. From there, however, it hopes to build toward something more substantial, both through acceptance among early adopters and a fine-tuning of the multi-purpose robot’s functionality. But, adds Enwall, “even the first-generation of product will embody the principles required for putting a robot in everyone’s home and office. It’s just that this first version will be targeted at innovators.”

The company has released the above promotional image, which highlights an early prototype. At the very least, it appears to point to something more biologically influenced that the Roomba’s hockey puck shape. Whether it takes the form of a humanoid robot, an animal or something else entirely, remains to be seen.

Though Misty’s Sphero experience does point to a company that understands the value of imbuing a product with personality. “We’ve learned a lot,” says Bernstein. “From the progression of starting to add personality in Sphero 2.0, to the Disney deal, [we’ve learned] the power of creating a robot that’s…more of a character.”

Misty’s first product is set to hit the market next year.

Sphero’s new toy is a chatty Spider-Man

Sphero continues its partnership with Disney today, with the launch of a new toy based on the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. But where BB-8 and Lightning McQueen could move around the room, Spider-Man is more stationary — his real power involves holding conversations.

The simplest thing this Spider-Man can do is tell jokes — he seems to have an infinite simply of eye-rollers. If you just ask him to chat, he’ll start a conversation about random topics like school or dating. And as Sphero co-founder and Chief Software Architect Adam Wilson put it, he’s also “a storyteller,” describing his adventures to kids and asking them to participate in key moments.

You can see a few of my interactions with Spider-Man in the video above. Users are encouraged to try out different prompts and discover new modes of interaction — though there were plenty of times where Spider-Man would answer a different question from the one I asked, or he would just sit there silently.

The toy includes expressive LCD eyes, a microphone, a speaker and an accelerometer — so he’ll offer enthusiastic commentary if you pick him up and pretend to fight with him. There’s even an infrared sensor, allowing Spider-Man to go into “guard mode,” warning off any intruders who enter his owner’s bedroom.

Sphero's Spider-Man

Aside from using third-party speech recognition technology, Wilson said Spider-Man’s conversational engine was built “from scratch” — in essence, he’s “a full Android device” inside a superhero-shaped toy. (While your main interactions will be through voice, you’ll also need either an iOS or an Android app to control him.)

Wilson also emphasized the importance of privacy and security. He said Spider-Man is only listening when the spider on his chest lights up, and the user’s voice is never stored or shared. (The security measures are certified by AppliedTrust.)

It’s worth noting that while Spider-Man’s launch is timed to just a few weeks before the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming on July 7, he isn’t supposed to represent the movie version of the character, and he’s not voiced by Homecoming actor Tom Holland. (The fact that Homecoming will be distributed by Sony Pictures, not Disney, may have something to do with the toy’s lack of movie ties.) Still, Wilson said this Spider-Man comes with more than “100 comic books worth of content” and will also offer “tons of Easter Eggs.”

As for price, the toy costs $149.99.