If you want your own BB-8 droid, you can buy one from Sphero, a company in Boulder, CO. BB-8 is the adorable droid in Star Wars, The Force Awakens. It is a round ball that rolls across the ground with a head that always stays on top of the ball.
Sphero fuses robotic and digital technology into an immersive entertainment experience. They make other droids besides BB-8. The original product is named after the company – Sphero. It is basically a white sphere a little lager than a pool cue ball that you control with your smartphone to roll around the room and play games with. I bought one after seeing it in a Discovery store.
In 2014 the company did something really smart – they started creating education curriculum that teaches kids how to code using a Sphero device. What started as a meetup for kids to learn about robtoics and coding is now an expanding library of free lessons for teachers and students. And, in the process of learning how to code, the lessons also teach about music, engineering, math, science, art, writing, and more. They have found a way to bring learning and playing together. This educational program is called SPRK (spark).
The product manager for SPRK is Bill Cullen and I had the pleasure of talking with him about the SPRK program.
In this interview, you will hear the benefits of incorporating an education market into your product plans, including…
- expanding the overall market,
- creating passionate customers,
- increasing speed of innovation through community involvement, and
- adding community-generated products.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- Tell us about the SPRK program – how it got started and what its purpose is? SPRK stands for schools, parents, robots, kids. SPRK started as a meet-up for kids called Sphero Rangers. We noticed that as more kids participated, one of the things they always wanted to do was program the robot. Over time, as the product came to market, everyone spent extra time having meetups with interested kids or educators to program the robots. It developed over time to more people being interested and we created some really rudimentary mobile apps to program the robots. That was the beginning of the SPRK program. I added a community and a platform that we’re calling the Lightning Lab that we launched recently. It’s a place for people to share what they’ve programmed for the robot and projects that they’ve done. Educators can create and find structured content to bring into the classroom.
- What are your responsibilities as the product manager for SPRK? I’m involved on both hardware and software aspects of our product lines. On the hardware side, I manage our current product in both the retail and educational channels and contribute to the design of the next version. We have a team of hardware and electrical engineers that I work with directly to do prototyping and refine the industrial design to get the product completed. On the software side there’s a huge amount of innovation in the last year and this coming year, too, because of the community we’ve built. On the software side we are building the tools to make programming for Sphero in a way that people are inspired to share what they have done and put it all in the same place so that it’s easily accessible for anyone. We’re on that journey right now with Lightning Lab. If you have a robot and you’re just a retail customer, and you bought it to go play with, you can have that experience, but you can also download the Lightning Lab app. And here’s the Easter Egg – the app lets you program any of our products, not just the Sphero SPRK edition.
- Product managers are innovators and business people. From a business perspective, how has SPRK – entering the education market – impacted the overall company? On the business side what it’s done is allow us to diversify the audience of users. So, where the product was originally an entertainment product, we now have this really passionate user base that advocates for us and it’s in a totally different niche. We now get a lot of interest from different groups and have this really passionate user base in the educational community. It extends far beyond schools themselves. We have customers that are at libraries and maker camps and STEM camps and festivals and more. It’s really exciting to be surprised at how it’s being used.
- Sphero Chariot STEM Challenge lesson
- Sphero company website
- SPRK Educational website
- SPRK Lightning Lab
“Always get to the end before you finish.” – Anonymous engineer
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