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It was the second week of TechStars and I was doing office hours with each of the 11 teams going through the Boulder 2010 program. I was sitting across the table from Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein who each looked tired and dejected. In front of them were three slides.
I asked them what was wrong. They said they were having trouble deciding which of three different products to pursue. They’d had a dozen meetings with different mentors and were getting wildly conflicting data, which we refer to in TechStars as “mentor whiplash” and is a normal part of the first 30 days of TechStars for every team.
A few weeks earlier, Adam and Ian had their company Gearbox accepted into TechStars. They were hardware / software / robotics nerds and loved to tinker around. Their TechStars application and video had something to do with robots and their crazy desire to stay up all night hacking on them. When I’d last seen them a few weeks earlier, they were full of energy and life. Now they just looked defeated.
“Tell me about each of the ideas.” I asked. Adam started with the first one. “It’s a door lock controlled by your smartphone. The door lock market is really big.” said Adam in the most deadpan monotone voice I’ve ever heard.
“Ok – what’s the next one?” I asked. Ian mumbled something about the second slide on the table. I don’t even remember what he said.
“What about the third one?” Adam chimed in again, a little more animated this time. “It’s a robotic ball controlled by your smartphone.”
“Why are you having trouble deciding?” I asked. Adam kept going. “Some of the mentors like the door lock market but it seems like a really easy product to create and there are lots of door lock companies. And some don’t like it because it’s not defensible. No one really understands the second idea. And then there’s the ball – some mentors love it and others hate it.”
“Well,” I asked, “Is there one you love a lot more than the other two?” Adam and Ian looked at me quizzically, the same way my golden retrievers do when I ask them if they want to go for a walk. “Really, you just want to know which one we love the best?” asked Ian.
Adam jumped in, “Are you kidding. The ball. It’s a robotic ball you control with your smartphone.” Adam stood up with a gleam in his eye. “Brad, IT’S A ROBOTIC BALL YOU CONTROL WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE! HOW COOL IS THAT.”
At that moment, Sphero was born. And I knew that if Adam and Ian could make any progress over the next 10 weeks creating a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone, I wanted to invest in these two amazing guys. Their passion and obsession around the idea of a robotic ball you control with a smartphone was awesome.
Over the ensuing weeks they were regularly asked “what’s the market”, “who is the customer”, “how big is the market”, “isn’t it just a toy?”, and a bunch of other skeptical questions. As the weeks went by, they kept answering these sames questions with some variant of “we don’t really know but here are some ideas.” They kept working on the prototype and once they could drive something in a sort of a straight line, more eyes started lighting up and the “how big is the market questions” started to diminish.
Fundamentally, they didn’t know the answer, nor was it important at this stage. There are a zillion balls in the world and an endless set of applications for them; at this point Adam and Ian were pursuing the vision of a product that they were obsessed about. While some mentors and investors wanted to understand all the market and customer dynamics, others were able to see, or dream about, the enormous potential opportunities if the product could ever be created.
This morning we announced that we have just led a $3m investment in Modular Robotics. I’ve joined the board and am psyched to now be an investor in two Boulder-based robotics companies – ModRobotics and Orbotix. In the spirit of “show” vs. “tell” (which everyone in TechStars has driven into their brains over and over again) here’s a short three minute video that shows how ModRobotics first product – Cubelets – works.
Dan Primack at Fortune has a nice article up about ModRobotics titled ‘Robotics for kids’ start-up raises $3 million. For a little history of the rapid progression of the robotics movement in Boulder, take a look at my post titled Boulder is for Robots. And – if you are in Boulder and interested in robots, join the Boulder is for Robots Meetup Group.
My partners at Foundry Group and I are psyched to be working with Eric and team on creating the next generation robot construction platform. I believe the machines have already taken over and are just patiently waiting for us to catch up with them. As part of this, every kid should learn how to program, create things, and work with robots. ModRobotics plans to be an integral part of that.
Sphero is now available in some Brookstone stores around the US. There’s a handy map on the Sphero site and I’ll include a list at the bottom of this post.
Occasionally one of you, dear blog reader, will ask if you can do anything for me. I usually say something like “just do awesome things” but this time I have a request. If you live near one of the Brookstone stores with a Sphero, go check it out. Play with it. Have your kids play with it (if you have kids). And if you like it, buy one.
Cats are cute, right? What could be more cute than a cat playing with a Sphero?
How about the President of the United States playing with a Sphero. Ok – that’s not cute, it’s cool.
Now, how about you playing with a Sphero? At a Brookstone store. And then buying one? That would be mega awesome cool.
If you travel through any of the following airports on Memorial Day, go check out our little robot friend
- Chicago (O’Hare)
- Dallas/Fort Worth,
- Los Angeles
Following are the addresses for the stores in alpha order by city.
- Atlanta, GA - 4400 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Suite 1360
- Braintree, MA - 250 Granite St # 12
- Columbia, MD – 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway
- Concord, CA - 424 Sun Valley Mall # 1
- Costa Mesa, CA - 3333 Bristol Street, Suite 1870
- Dallas, TX – 214 North Park Center
- Danbury, CT - 7 Backus Avenue
- Denver, CO - 3000 East 1st Avenue
- Freehold, NJ - 3710 Route 9
- Houston, TX - 5085 Westheimer Rd
- Louisville, KY - 5000 Shelbyville Rd # 1380
- Lynnwood, WA - 3000 184th Street SW
- Marlborough, MA - 601 Donald Lynch Boulevard
- McLean, VA - 1961 Chain Bridge
- Miami, FL - 8888 SW 136 Street
- Minneapolis, MN - 162 Market Street
- Nashua, NH - 310 Daniel Webster Hwy
- Orland Park, IL - 736 Orland Square Dr
- Orlando, FL - 4200 Conroy Road
- Palm Beach Gardens, FL - 3101 Pga Boulevard
- Raleigh, NC - 4325 Glenwood Ave
- San Diego, CA - 7007 Friars Road
- San Francisco, CA - 3251 20th Ave
- Santa Monica, CA - 1311 Third Street Promenade
- Schaumburg, IL – 60173 Woodfield Mall
- South Portland, ME - 364 Maine Mall Road
- Troy, MI - 2801 West Big Beaver Road
- Waterford, CT – 850 Hartford Tpke # P207
Last week President Obama played with a Sphero. This weekend you can win up to $5,000 at the Sphero Hackathon in Boulder. It starts Friday May 4th at 6pm with a Welcome Reception (which means beer and Spheros) and runs all day Saturday and Sunday where you can hack with Spheros and the Orbotix SDK. I’ll be around Sunday from 1pm to 3pm taking a look at what people have done, playing around with the apps, and answering any questions about why I think Sphero (and Orbotix – the company that makes Sphero) is so awesome.
Two new apps have recently come out for the Sphero. The first, Chromo, allows you to play with Sphero in a whole new way. While Orbotix’s other apps allow you to control Sphero from your device (kinetically and via a digital joystick), now Sphero is the controller. The video tells the story better than words.
The other app is MacroLab. Did you have a Big Trak as a kid? If not, you missed out, but you can relive those missed moments with MacroLab. As before, let’s start with a quick video.
MacroLab is a tool Orbotix developed for internal purposes that turned out to be so powerful they decided to make it available to all Sphero users. It is essentially a high level abstraction of the API that runs in the ball’s memory that commands the robot. It makes the API accessible to people who don’t know how to program an iOS or Android app.
When a user creates a macro they send a series of commands to the ball. Macros are made by stringing together 27 basic commands (by comparison the SDK has about 300 commands – most are UI/robot housekeeping based but 100 are ball control related). Each command is executed in sequence. Following is an example (called “test”) along with an explanation.
- Calibrate – this zeros out Sphero’s heading so you know which way he will go after you aim him
- RGB – this changes the color of the LED to purple – the numbers are the RGB settings
- Roll 0.5 0 0 – 50% speed (0.5), 0º heading = straight ahead, 0 second wait time before executing next command
If we stopped here the LED will flash purple and Sphero would run away at 50% speed and only stop when you exit the macro. Basically the macro runs for a fraction of a second with an open ended roll command. The Sphero goes white (his default color) after the macro is run. In order to not have an open ended command we need to add some more stuff.
- Delay 5000 – this means to wait for 5 seconds, Sphero uses milliseconds so 5000ms = 5 seconds
- Roll 0.0 0 0 – 0% speed (0.0), 0º heading, 0 second delay
- RGB – change LED color to orange
- Delay 1000 – Wait for 1 second
The entire macro runs for 6 seconds. Sphero will turn purple, drive for 5 seconds at 50% speed, stop, turn orange for one second and then end by turning white.
The commands for MacroLab are very basic but powerful enough that Orbotix uses them to run tests on the factory line and form the basis of programs like “Draw N Drive” (every line you draw gets converted to a macro and the ball executes the command). The complete command list follows:
- Roll – sets the ball in motion
- RGB – changes the main LED color
- Calibrate – zeros heading
- Delay – wait time in ms before executing next command
- Fade – fade between two colors over a set period of time
- Back LED – turn the blue aiming LED on/off
- WaitUntilStop – don’t execute the next command until Sphero has stopped moving
- Rotate Over Time – turn xº in y seconds
- SD1, SD2 – global variables for system delays – useful when you want a bunch of commands to use the same delay
- SPD1, SPD2 – global variables for ball speeds – useful when you want a bunch of roll commands all at the same speed
- Roll SD1, SPD1 – roll command that uses the system SD1 for delay and SPD1 for speed
- Roll SD1, SPD2 – roll command that uses the SD1 for delay and SPD2 for speed
- RGB SD2 – change LED to RGB setting but use SD2 delay time for duration
- Rotate Over TIme SD1, SD2 – rotate over time command but uses the system delays SD1 and SD2 respectively
- Goto – calls another macro or restarts the same macro
- Rotation Rate – set how fast the ball can turn
- Stabilization – turns the control system on and off -when off the robot will not move inside the ball
- Raw Motor – command the motors without any control system enabled
- EMIT – Displays a message on the phone when the ball hits that point in the macro – useful for debugging
- Sleep – Puts Sphero to sleep
- Loop For, End – Create loops within the macro
- Comment – ability to add comments to your macros – no effect on the ball
When I first heard the idea for MacroLab I smiled a huge smile. It’s the beginning of Orbotix opening up their robot control language, which is part of the magic behind the premise for our investment in Orbotix. I’m amused when people say “why did you invest in a toy ball company?” when what we really invested in was a bunch of geniuses working on a robotic operating system that happens to start life out as a robot ball that you control with your smartphone.
Yesterday, President Obama was in Boulder. The guys at Orbotix showed up and got him to play around with a Sphero. Watch the video (it’s pretty awesome) and then I’ll tell you the story of how they made it happen. The short answer – always be ready to demo your product – you never know when the President (or a key customer) is nearby.
Our main characters for this story are Ross Ingram and Damon Arniotes. Ross is the one demoing Sphero to the President. Ross is Mr. Everywhere for Orbotix – his job is to handle every hack event, be at every party, and show up everywhere that might be interesting with a bunch of Spheros. Damion is the guy filming everything on his iPhone. His full time job is to video Sphero in the wild and tell the story all the time.
On Monday night after Ross and Damon found out the President would be at CU Boulder they starting talking about how awesome it would be to get a Sphero into Obama’s hands. No one knew Obama’s route around CU and Boulder, but Ross and Damon drove around the Campus and the Hill (next to CU) to scope things out. I’m betting at least one beer was consumed.
On Tuesday, they drove to CU with Spheros in hand but still didn’t know where Obama was going to be. They had to leave Damon’s camera gear behind because of security and the fact that Damon isn’t press (apparently only press is allowed cameras).
While they were driving to campus they saw a bunch of yellow police tape and took a guess that this was a spot that might see some action. If you are a fly fisherman, you know this drill. Go where you think the fish are going to be and wait. They found a parking spot near the Sink (one of the venerable old college hangouts on the Hill) and parked.
Ross called Paul Berberian, Orbotix’s CEO around 6pm and asked Paul if they should drive Sphero past the yellow tape towards Obama. Paul, who went to the Air Force Academy, responded with “No fucking way – you’ll end up in jail – remote control ball rolling to the president – bad idea.”
Around 6:45 Secret Service starts cherry picking folks from the crowd to be in the receiving line for the President. Magically Ross and Damon get picked – they get screened with metal detectors and are allowed in with Sphero. A girl with a Slurpie had to throw it away – apparently Slurpies are more dangerous than robotic balls. I bet she had one of those neon blue ones.
The President rolls up minutes later and starts shaking hands. Damon starts filming on his iPhone. Ross greets the President and asks him to see his iPhone to drive the robot ball. The President immediately gets it; Ross asks him if he wants to drive it - and the rest is what you saw on the video. While this is happening, the Secret Service rushed in around Ross and Damon as soon as the President engaged, but the President kept going with Sphero so they hung back.
Someone in the crowd took the Sphero while Ross and Damon frantically played back to video to see if they got it. They did and the rest is memorialized for history – this is the first time we are aware of that a President of the United States has played with a robotic ball controlled with an iPhone.
There are two big lessons here. First, always be ready. Second, hire amazing guys like Ross and Damon and let the loose on the world. Guys – incredible!