This entry is part 21 of 22 in the series Winter - 2017




by Beth Etter

If you’re on the cutting edge of robotics – or if you have a technology buff in your family – you may have played with a ball called Sphero. The brainchild of CSU alumnus Ian Bernstein and co-founder Adam Wilson, Sphero is about the size of a tennis ball and controlled through a smartphone. With more than 30 apps that offer multiple ways to play, Sphero is the first of its kind – a pet-proof, waterproof toy that promises “immersive entertainment experiences that ignite imagination and defy expectation.”

Bernstein has spent most of his 33 years igniting his own imagination and defying expectations. Home-schooled for most of his childhood in New Mexico, Bernstein has worked with robots since he was 12, when he attended the BEAM International Robotics Games in Santa Fe in 1995. “I didn’t know much about robots and left completely hooked,” Bernstein says.

Bernstein spent a few years at New Mexico Tech before transferring to CSU to study electrical engineering and computer science. “The senior design class was incredibly helpful. I learned a lot, especially the key principles of managing a project,” Bernstein says.

Bernstein and Wilson, who graduated from University of Northern Colorado, bonded over their mutual love of robotics. They knew they wanted to use a smartphone to control a robot, but they weren’t sure where to take it.

“Smartphones were still fairly new, and the market for controlling products like house lights and garage doors was limited,” Bernstein says.

When they were accepted into the startup accelerator program Techstars in Boulder, they turned to their mentors for guidance on direction and strategy for their startup Orbotix (which became Sphero).

Though each mentor had advice to offer, Bernstein and Wilson ultimately went with something they were passionate about.

From that ball came the first Sphero, which launched in 2011, and then Ollie, which launched in 2014.

“The ball idea was kind of wacky, It was such a blank slate. From a design perspective, it was something that could be programmable. And we wanted it to be open [so people could develop apps and games].”

In 2014, Bernstein and Wilson were accepted to the Disney Accelerator – a three-month program that helps companies develop their new, innovative entertainment experiences and products. From that program, and a 15-minute meeting with Bob Iger, chair and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, came BB-8™ the app-enabled Droid™ by Sphero.

“Before our time in the Disney Accelerator, our products were very engineering-focused,” Bernstein says. “The program taught us the importance of experience and how valuable it is to understand how your products make your consumers feel.”

One of Bernstein’s favorite products is SPRK+, a see-through Sphero that teaches the user how to program and code through the Lightning Lab app.

“It’s used in art classes because it’s waterproof and you can design on canvas,” Bernstein says. “It’s used to teach mechanical engineering through the building of a chariot, and classes have modeled the solar system by calculating rotation rates around the sun. It’s even helped teach social skills to children with autism.”

The company is now working on a more sophisticated robot, though details are under wraps. The ideas will certainly keep coming for Bernstein and team because, as their website says, Sphero is on a mission to put a robot in every home.