Sphero RVR’s Quest For A Niche In Introductory Robotics

Thanks to internet commerce opening up a global marketplace, it is now easier than ever for a budding roboticist to get started. There are so many robot kits available, across such a wide range of price and sophistication, that deciding which one to buy becomes a challenging project in itself. Is there room for another product in the crowded introductory robotics market? Sphero believes so, and they’ve launched RVR to explore not just workshops and classrooms, but also to see if they can find a market niche.

At the low end of this market, we can go online and buy a super simple chassis – two small wheeled gear motors and a chassis plate of laser-cut acrylic – for pizza money. At the high end, we have robots that cost as much as a car. Sphero’s RVR slots somewhere above Wonder Workshop’s Dash, but below LEGO’s Mindstrom EV3. Products in this range are expected to take care of low-level motion control details, so beginners won’t get bogged down by things like PID tuning before their robot can drive in a straight line. Sphero engineers are certainly capable of hiding such annoying details from beginners, with their experience in consumer robotics.

But a big selling point here is completely opposite from closed-box consumer electronics: RVR is built to be extensible. Not with proprietary accessories & add-on kits like many of its competitors, but with the components we know and love on Hackaday pages: Raspberry Pi, micro:bit, and whatever else willing to communicate with RVR via its UART port and powered by RVR’s on board five volt power supply. Proper care and feeding of a lithium-ion battery is also one of the beginner-unfriendly details taken care of. But RVR isn’t finalized – one of the reason Sphero stated for launching via Kickstarter is to get customer feedback. Certainly the funding goal of $150,000 (easily met in a few hours) was unlikely to be the most important part for a company of Sphero’s size.

We hope RVR will help introduce a new audience to building their own robots. When they’re ready to grow beyond Sphero’s kit, Hackaday is happy to help show the way. If you have a 3D printer, there’s never been a better time to build your own robot. (Zerobot is on one editor’s to-do list.) Those fascinated by electronics can peek under the covers of low-level motor control, and there’s always room to explore high level machine vision and neural networks.

Whatever it takes to get you started, just get started!

15 thoughts on “Sphero RVR’s Quest For A Niche In Introductory Robotics

    1. Only if they do something useful and do it capably, seamlessly, painlessly, and dependably.

      Looking at a close-at-hand success, Roomba and its follow-on devices hold a modest niche for some because they operate without instruction, vacuuming a room or two by hand takes time, and the results are “good enough” for everyday use. They have the advantage of a closed system to bump around in, are fairly harmless to pets and children, and enough safety stuff that they won’t launch off a balcony. Beyond that even they are wonky – susceptible to dust accumulation in the sensors (“Sorry, honey…I have to vacuum the vacuum.”) and other weirdness.

      The good news is that the industrial side of this market is moving ever downward – Universal Robotics (among others) have found a huge niche in small jobs during the current tight labor market (“Open this, put that in, close it up again…now do that around the clock until we tell you to stop.”). Operations people that I deal with also love them because they don’t fail the urine test and actually show up on Monday morning. Moley have kept offering a “home chef” system, but I have yet to see any “in the wild”, but as with most of these things there will be a breakthrough product. It might even be fun like the Aibo robot pets that people wind up getting quite attached to.

      1. “Operations people that I deal with also love them because they don’t fail the urine test and actually show up on Monday morning.”

        This is one of the more annoying tropes that i continue to hear, It makes it seem as if the majority of line workers are druggies and deadbeats. While there may be a few of them out there, this is not the reason that Operations people love robots. Operations people love robots because of the money plain and simple! Robots dont need breaks, can be run 24 hours a day, require minimal down time when they are designed properly and will never ask to have their wages increased to match inflation. If you have an assembly line that runs 24 hours a day and is staffed by 3 shifts, replacing one position on that line with a 250,000 robot gets a ROI in just over 3 years (if you consider an average salary of 33,000). now consider that most robots are designed to replace more than one position and are expected to have a life span of over 10 years.

        Please, just focus on the dollars instead of implying that most people who do manual line labor are druggies and dead beats. For Ops people robots are better than even the cleanest and most diligent employee, i have worked with people on both sides of those equation and the line workers find it very infuriating that a couple bad apples are being blamed for the robot replacement rather than focusing on the real reason. While those tropes might make it easier for society to swallow the mass replacement of labor that is underway, they completely hide the real reason and puts society in a losing position with its head in the sand, unable to deal with the upcoming changes that will happen when there is no more low skilled jobs.

    2. I was just thinking the same thing. But I have serious reservations. I went through the initial excitement of the 70’s and 80’s when *everybody* was getting into home robots, followed by the disappointing realization that without the computing power and software they needed, they were all just fancy remote-controlled toys. So many promising companies and designs went into the trash bin of history. There’s certainly a lot more computing power available now for much less money, as well as sophisticated sensors and AI software. Let’s just hope that they don’t over-promise on their ability to deliver, and that they come up with some kind of coherent reason for people to buy a robot other than “Yay! Robots!!”

    3. Probably not yet, for consumer robots to really take off, they need to do actual work, and reliably. Mostly, we are still at the toy/novelty point, fun to play with, but not so much for taking on any real chores. Think we still have a ways to go before we’ll see something we can send to the refrigerator to grab us a cold beer, and deliver it, any where in the house, or on the property, better than a spouse or kid. Most of what’s available, is just too small for practical tasks, so you will only get basically a toy. Moving up to something large enough, will cost a lot of money, and increase the potential for real damage, potential injuries, as the consumer works out the kinks and programming. Way too much liability, and to many lazy people, who barely, if ever read a user manual.

  1. I want to see someone take the old Androbot design and spiff it up with fancy modern electronics, sensors etc. The steeply angled, flattened cone frustrum shape wheels were to provide passive stability. They were also a compromise between stability and friction. The designer of the wheels wanted them at a lower angle which would make it more stable and allow the lead acid battery to be mounted lower, further aiding stability.

    But the lower angle would’ve increased scrub/drag and further reduced battery life and added strain on the motors. So the wheel angle and battery were raised, thus Androbot wobbled back and forth more, which reduced the top speed it could move without causing severe wobble.

    But with current solid state accelerometers, PID tuning, fast electronics etc it would be possible to use the minimum wheel angle needed for power off passive stability while having rock steady upright hold while moving. That could also open up space between the wheels to set the battery down between.

    1. So that nearly sent me down a rabbit hole–search, find the Androbot brochures–3 8088 CPUs and 3 MB of RAM in 1984, that must have cost a fortune–more search, find a PC Magazine article, list price was $3995–where’s that inflation calculator–$9659 in 2019 money.

      Unquestionably something built along the same lines now would be much better and much cheaper. For me, the crux is whether it could be a useful household helper, or still basically a toy.

  2. It sure is sleek looking, and for 200$ you can’t get much better on Aliexpress etc. It’s comparable to a mid range RC car price-wise.
    However still seems too expensive to me just to drive it along my desk, it’s not something you can take outside and drive on anything other than perfectly clean surfaces.

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