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Toy maker Sphero challenging design, engineering students

Thursday, March 05, 2015

LAWRENCE — Sphero, the industry leader in “connected play,” has challenged University of Kansas students at the Center for Design Research to come up with its next generation of products.

One of the company’s co-founders, Adam Wilson, recently joined the students at the CDR for a kickoff event to acquaint them with the company and its leading product, also called Sphero. Sphero is a small robotic ball that can start, stop and roll in any direction at varying speeds guided by a Bluetooth-connected tablet, smartphone or other device.

Sphero also has an educational program called SPRK, which allows students to program their Spheros through a fun crash course that teaches computer coding and sharpens math skills. Anyone can download SPRK apps and lessons.

But at the CDR, KU students aren’t just looking at what Sphero can do today. Rather, they’re trying to discover what comes next.

“Sphero and its other products are extremely popular with kids ages 8 to 13,” said Greg Thomas, design professor and director of the CDR. “But how do you go beyond that? Our students are exploring the ways we give an object social value. How do you make it pull at your heartstrings? What if we created a new kind of Sphero that could be a companion, speak to an elderly user and remind them to take their medicine, or help teenage students develop social skills?

“Sphero has handed us an empty canvas and asked for a new painting,” he said. “It is an extremely difficult task but one our students have become accustomed to.”

Thomas said he is especially excited about this project because of its interdisciplinary nature. With the support of Associate Dean of Engineering Arvin Agah, students from the School of Engineering were able to join the industrial design class which is taught in the Department of Design.

“This is a specific case of how different disciplines fuse together to create solutions that are feasible. Our designers learn so much collaborating with the engineering students who have a great deal of technical expertise," Thomas said. “Students bring their specific skills to the table, and that results in a product that’s closer to reality.

“The engineering students are an incredible resource for us. I hope this is just a beginning of more collaboration across different schools,” he said. “This is the sort of interdisciplinary work process they can expect to experience after graduation.”

The research will be aided by Intel’s recent donation of programmable Galileo circuit boards. The boards can be used to drive devices such as motors, lights and speakers according to programs that the users code and upload into them.

“The Galileo boards are amazing devices that our engineering and computer science students are right at home with,” Thomas said. “But at the beginning, I have to tell them, don’t get stuck on the diodes and motors. Forget all that. If you could do anything in the world and not have to worry about screws and wires, what would it be?”

The engineering, computer science and industrial design students will have a chance to display their work with when they present their ideas to Sphero at March midterms, then for a final presentation in May.

Photo: Greg Thomas, design professor and director of the Center for Design Research, displaying a Sphero, a small robotic ball that can start, stop and roll in any direction at varying speeds guided by a Bluetooth-connected tablet, smartphone or other device.

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