All posts in “Sphero”

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.

This Spider-Man does whatever a spider-companion can do

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What if your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man could spend less time out fighting crime and more time at home with you?

That’s the concept behind Sphero’s latest Disney/Marvel Universe-inspired toy, the Spider-Man Interactive App-enabled Superhero. It’s a tabletop companion that responds to your voice, tells stories, virtually joins you on missions, and can watch over your room.

Even though he’s a superhero, this Spider-Man has a decidedly Funko-like figure (giant head, squat physique) and a rubberized body. Its stumpy arms are poseable, but he’s otherwise immobile. It is rechargeable so you can take it out on your own little Spider-Man-inspired adventures.

The only thing that moves on this Spider-Man are his arms.

The only thing that moves on this Spider-Man are his arms.

Image: Lance Ulanoff/mashable

Inside, though, is an Android-based system, motion sensors, a speaker just below his Spider-Man logo button, microphones, and expressive LCD-based Spidey eyes.

The toy companion’s launch is timed to coincide with the release of the new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie franchise reboot. Aside from the eyes and web-slinger gear on its wrist, though, the toy is wearing a classic Spider-Man costume.

Designed for a night table or desktop (he can be used as an alarm clock), Sphero’s Spider-Man will spend most of its existence on its included charging base, waiting for you to press the Spider-Man logo on its chest. Once you do that, the logo lights up and microphones listen for key words and phrases, like “What’s the crime report?” “Let’s fight some bad guys,” “Make me laugh,” and “Tell me a story.” And Spider-Man has many tales to tell. Sphero packed it with over 100 comic books’ worth of stories and adventures, and Spider-Man keeps track of what he’s told you and where in the action you left off. Sphero representatives told me the toy won’t be repeating itself.

The interactive Spider-Man comes with this charging base.

The interactive Spider-Man comes with this charging base.

Image: lance Ulanoff/mashable

There’s also an associated app that lets you create your own superhero name and abilities and helps you keep track of which bad guys you’ve fought.

Inside the app, you choose your name from a two-part word wheel, where you make up combos like “Stealth Wolf” or “Ultimate Shark.” You get the same two-word choice system for your super power. During setup, I chose the name “Colossal King” and “Super Fists” as my super power. You can update your alias and powers at any time.

Don't worry about Interactive Spider-Man using your child's real name. It lets her pick a superhero alias.

Don’t worry about Interactive Spider-Man using your child’s real name. It lets her pick a superhero alias.

Image: Sphero

And you get to add a crazy super power.

And you get to add a crazy super power.

Image: Sphero

When I connected the app to Spider-Man (you just hold the phone near Spider-Man), he immediately used my name and asked me if I was royal by birth. He also noted my super power and said he wondered why my hands were big and red. 

Put simply, this is a toy with intelligence.

You can pick it up and move it around and, because of the accelerometer, it will react. I turned Interactive Spider-Man upside down and it said. “Unhand me, you fiend,” and when I shook it, he said “Shake your super hero booty.” 

Spider-Man's charging port is built into his foot.

Spider-Man’s charging port is built into his foot.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The Interactive Spider-Man never had trouble hearing me, even when I spoke softly, and I never had difficulty hearing or understanding the sound coming out of the single speaker in his belly. Volume is controlled via the app.

Spider-Man’s youthful voice is always accompanied by eye animations that make it look like he’s happy, sad, or amused.

There’s no camera, but Spider-Man can use its infrared motion sensor to detect movement, In sentry mode, which you activate by double-pressing the logo button and saying “Activate guard mode,” Spider-Man says things like, “Freeze, knucklehead, you’re not allowed in here.” You turn off this mode by telling Spider-Man to “Stand down.”

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All this interaction and engagement might make you nervous, but Sphero spent a lot of time thinking about privacy. That’s why there isn’t a camera and Spider-Man isn’t always listening. You must press the Spider-Man logo button to turn on the microphone, and the logo is always lit when the toy is listening.

Sphero’s interactive Spider-Man is Wi-Fi connected, but only for content updates. Whatever you tell it is encrypted and, as soon as Spider-Man has completed the associated voice task, the data is, according to Sphero, discarded.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

Spider-Man is also full of hidden Easter eggs. Every time you push its button, Spider-Man will respond, but if you keep pressing, he may threaten to reset. He even appears to do so, but it’s a ruse. Not sure if kids will find that entertaining or frustrating. I suggest shaking him a lot to see what happens.

In general, though, this could be the perfect companion for a Spider-Man-obsessed 8 year-old (or older) who wants wants to live the Spidey lifestyle with all the entertainment and activity value, but none of the real-world risks.

Sphero’s Interactive Spider-Man goes on sale Thursday for $149.

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