ROBOTS (Per): Welcome to the podcast, today I’m here with Ian Bernstein from Sphero and we’re going to talk about his fantastic little toy and actually both are controlled by the iPad or any android device and also controls it. So it is both an output and input, I understand. But we are going to start with how you got into robotics.
Ian: Alright. Let’s see. So I started home schooling when I was in 4th grade, which I guess is 11, 12 years old, and my dad saw that I was always interested in taking stuff apart. I would always take like cameras and radios and had this box of parts. But he as a classical guitarist, he started trading guitar lessons for this guy teaching me about electronics and through this guy who started teaching me about electronics I got involved. He showed me a flyer for the beam robotics games, which were in New Mexico in 1995. And my dad ended up taking me the first day, and we were just going to check it out and I got totally hooked and went every day of the competition and just started acquiring parts and building robots and I started a robot website, yeah I was totally hooked, so ever since I was I think almost 12 years old I have been building robots. That is where I got involved.
ROBOTS: So the BEAM work is then the Mark Tilden’s BEAM Robotics?
Ian: Yeah. Yes I worked with Mark Tilden a lot. He lives in Los Alamos which I grew up in New Mexico, it was only a couple of hours away. So my dad will take me up there and would meet with Mark, and he would give me schematics and stuff and of course I knew like Rodney Brooks and all those guys back then as well, so yeah.
ROBOTS: How did you get into starting a business and how did you select the idea you wanted to work with?
Ian: So I went from home schooling, and when I was 18 I went to college for electrical engineering and computer science. And I did that for a while at New Mexico Tech and then I transferred to Colorado State and I went to a career fair, went around all the different companies and asked them what sort of jobs they had available and everything just sounded really boring. So I decided to start my own company. I ended starting a web design company meanwhile, working part time at this robotics company Road Narrows Robotics in Colorado, to keep my engineering fresh. And basically I learnt a lot about business and I just got tired of building websites for other people, I really wanted to do my own thing.
And in late 2009, just was playing with my iPhone one night and wondered why this awesome computer that I have in my hand, has touch screen and way better than anything in the robots we were selling, and I was like why can’t I use this device to control physical things? So that was the premise behind starting this business Orbotix. With that idea we got into a start up accelerator programme.
ROBOTS: In Boulder Colorado then?
Ian: Yeah. So right Boulder called TechStars and they helped my co-founder, Adam and I, build our company.
ROBOTS: That’s amazing. And I guess the experience of being one of these TechStars or other incubator programmes must be a real thrill ride?
Ian: It is crazy. They are 3 months long and they hook you up with mentors and investors and people from all over, you know Facebook and Google and Twitter. So we were actually the first hardware company to go through TechStars and that was in the summer of 2010. Since then TechStars has had a couple of other hardware companies and there’s actually hardware specific accelerators that have come up. That is awesome if you have a robotics company or anything hardware, trying an accelerator, and I think there’s a couple of other new ones that are popping up that you can apply to and they are very focused just on hardware companies.
ROBOTS: Was it a challenge for you to come into this TechStars that is usually web-oriented and being a hardware company? What were the challenges around that?
Ian: The 2 main challenges that we faced were, at the time TechStars only gave us $6000 per founder for the summer. So obviously we were not working, we were doing this 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, getting our company going. But having to buy physical things and make circuit boards and so we basically like ran out of money by the end of TechStars so that was one challenge. And then the other challenge was investors, so all these investors coming in. Things are changing now I think, just recently, but 90% of the investors we talked to as soon as they saw that we were doing hardware, they are like “okay no, like we won’t invest in hardware”. But I think that is actually changing now, with all these new hardware companies coming up and kick starter investors are starting to realise that, you know, hardware is not as scary as it was in the past.
ROBOTS: Is there anything you can tell us about what you, to do this in $6000 I guess you had to be really smart about how to do the different iterations of the hardware, you had to do as cheaply as possible. Is there any tips you have to the listeners out there on how to do hardware really cheaply?
Ian: Yes, I guess I learned a lot getting started in BEAM Robotics, so Mark Tilden’s philosophy was all about you know taking things apart and acquiring parts and surplus, so that helped. Like the original Sphero prototype was built with paper clips and the Sphero was this holiday Christmas ornament like blanks that you can buy at Hobby Lobby, so you cut off the little hanger tab and that was the original Sphero shell. We definitely hacked together the first prototypes and now of course with 3D printing and all the new maker bots that are coming out, it is getting a lot easier and a lot cheaper to do that, those prototypes.
ROBOTS: Do you think that that is an opportunity or a problem when it comes to actually then manufacturing, the scaling up basically, or manufacturing it at scale, that you have this background in hacking it together?
Ian: It was definitely challenging to get, yeah, exactly, it was very challenging to get from a prototype to do something that will work in somebody’s home and we ran into material issues on every single part inside Sphero. Just like robustness and things have to work at different temperatures, like if somebody is in the winter, has it in their car or they leave it next to their heater it has to work at both of those temperatures, static electricity, like so many different things and so many different problems but our manufacturer in China helped us out with a lot of those problems as well.
ROBOTS: How was it for a small new started company to work with China for production because I think that, I mean, you basically had to go to China, right?
Ian: Yeah, I think looking back I would be curious if we started again to look at US manufacturing as well. But yeah I spent about 6 months in China last June, and I loved it over there and I loved working with the teams at the factory and I think really the only suggestion to somebody else is just make sure you have somebody or you need to be over there. Have no problem getting a one way ticket to China and just spending as long as it takes over there working with their teams to make sure everything is right.
ROBOTS: You have to be on-site when it happens?
Ian: Absolutely, yes.
ROBOTS: The language barrier, I mean, is that a big problem? Should you have somebody speaking Chinese with you or English Chinese with you?
Ian: Our particular factory, all the engineers that we worked with spoke very good English so that helped. We also had a company getting us through the beginning processes called Dragon Innovation and they worked with us and they had people in China, Chinese citizens that spoke English and Chinese that helped as well.
ROBOTS: So that was not the major issue?
Ian: Never had any issues with that, no.
ROBOTS: So they take home from that is go there and it will be possible?
ROBOTS: Could you tell us a bit about the Sphero as hardware. What is in there and how did it end up in there, so to speak?
Ian: We basically wanted Sphero as intuitive and lower barrier to use as possible so things like Wi-Fi were out, because if you use Wi-Fi you going to either have to somehow connect it to your home network, but then you go to like a restaurant and then you are not going to be able to use it. Or it has to set up an ad hoc network, which means you have to go into your settings and change networks every time you want to use it. So we had to use Bluetooth, so we use Bluetooth inside Sphero. We experimented with a bunch of different ways to move it and found that the best way was 2 motors. It is essentially a mini Segway inside of a ball. So it has 2 motors to move it and then to stabilise it we realized that we would need a gyro and accelerometer. And then of course we wanted some more feedback so we had a RGBLED and we knew we wanted it sealed, both to make it strong and waterproof so that meant we needed induction charging.
So that is pretty much it inside Sphero. We have induction charging, an LED, a processor, of course, the motors and a gyro accelerometer for stabilisation and Bluetooth for communication.
ROBOTS: I have understood that like the Bluetooth and the inductive charging, these were all components, and if somebody wants to do something out there and they feel that I’m not an expert on all of these fields, isn’t it so that the technology is so mature now that it is actually reasonably easy to buy these as modules and then just assemble them into the product you want to develop?
Ian: Yeah it is definitely, definitely yeah, I mean, a lot of the parts for initial Sphero were just purchased through SparkFun, just a lot of modules wired together, you know.
ROBOTS: Where there any special challenges for instance with Bluetooth? Is there licensing or is it any, was is it just buy them and go on, or is it any legal or other issues you have to handle?
Ian: There is a little bit of FCC and EMC certification that you have to go through. We ended up using a Bluetooth module, one of the modules that SparkFun sells actually from Roving Networks. So that’s pretty much off the shelf, they handle their modules certified in itself and then you just have to do a secondary RF certification through FCC. So it was a little bit tricky on a couple of those parts but, I mean, obviously any consumer product has to go through those certifications.
ROBOTS: I mean if you go to the FCC and you want your certification are they set up for the small start-up or do they expect the large corporations? Did you see an issue there?
Ian: I mean it is pricey like we did our certification at a lab in China, which is a little bit cheaper but I think it does not matter what product you have, it is like $12,000 to do just an FCC certification, so other than the price barrier, it was not too big of an issue. I mean it is only a few hours you go into the lab, you run all these test on it and they print out if you are okay or not.
ROBOTS: But if you had to do that and you failed and you had to do it again and again and again it adds up, and for a large corporation that is not the problem, but for a new start-up 10×$12,000 it is a big cheque to write to somebody.
Ian: Yeah. Definitely.
ROBOTS: I guess you and I could both go and make a call out to these authorities that they have to accommodate these small start-up businesses too.
Ian: Yeah, definitely. That would be nice and just ways of doing, so you could go on and do like the pre-cert, not the actual certification test, but they would just give you a rough, like you are good or not, and that way you can do, you can rent this little lab by the hour which is a little bit cheaper, but yeah, that is definitely a barrier.
ROBOTS: We see that in many areas that authorities are actually trying to calm down because hardware was the domain of the large corporation but it is not true anymore and they are trying to adapt so we have to give them credit for that. Then you, of course, you interface with an apple or android device and a Bluetooth device, I guess and then you have developed games and interactions with that. Can you tell us a bit on this Sphero platform what have you done with it?
Ian: Right. So we look at Sphero not just as an RC ball or a toy but we want it to be a robot gaming system, so we want it to be like your Wii or your PlayStation where you buy the PlayStation and then you have access to hundreds of different games, so that is the model that we have for Sphero. So with Sphero, we will have about between 20 and 30 apps out before this holiday. We have both games where you can put Sphero on the ground and you can control it, and you can roll it around and control which direction the ball is moving and then we also have games where you hold Sphero in your hand and essentially use it as a 3D mouse to control game play on your tablet or your smart phone. And then we have like party games and strategy games, all different kinds of apps so you can download and different things that you can do with it.
ROBOTS: Yeah, do you have an SDK out there? Can I develop a game or use it as you say the 3D mouse. Can I use this as a 3D mouse if I have something I want to control?
Ian: Yes. So we have native IOS and android SDKs so we have put so much work into making sure it is super easy to build a game for Sphero. Like within 20 minutes we have had people who have never written and IOS or android game or any App, controlling Sphero. And then of a high level we also have an App called Macrolab that you can at a high level put commands in, like roll commands and LED change commands, and put them in a sequence and then hit play and it will play through that sequence, so that is good for kids and people just getting involved in programming.
ROBOTS: Non-programmers so to say?
ROBOTS: Yeah. But it is fully sealed so what you can do is hack the inside, yes?
Ian: So you can cut it open.
ROBOTS: We like voiding warranties here.
Ian: Also, we have been talking about releasing shells, replaceable shells that you can then buy it and tape closed after you have cut your Sphero but we definitely wanted to make Sphero hackable on all levels. So you can cut it open and you can take like the LED outputs and hook them to something and now piggy back on top of our SDK’s to make your blender like phone controlled.
ROBOTS: Yeah, this is the thing like I like with the younger, the smaller companies, that they are so open that being hackable is just, yeah of course we should be hackable, both software and hardware, that you go out of your way to sell the extra shells and make it. You can actually cut it open. I think that is just so amazingly great. Have you seen any activity in this? Have you seen your customers and stuff, people out there doing some cool stuff?
Ian: Definitely so we have done a bunch of hackerthons around the country, around the US, though we have had probably 50 different Apps come out of, you can go to Spheroverse.com and see all the different things people have done at those hackerthons and a lot of people have open sourced the code that they have written. So you can download those projects and build off them, I mean, I search YouTube all the time for Sphero and see tones of cool little hacks that people have done. Like somebody controlled like 6 of them with his connect. So he would like move his arms to the right and these 6 Spheros would all like swarm to the right and he will like move his arms to the left and they would all swarm to the left. People use like Macrolab to wiggle Sphero back and forth, and he taped a fin to the the back of it and put it in a pool and that wiggling back and forth mackerel that is looped, like, caused her to swim around the pool. This little fin, I do not know, like so many little weird hacks.
Ian: And it is awesome.
ROBOTS: Yeah, being a platform is a really great thing because it allows your customers to do things like this and that is just an amazing showcase. Have you thought about making it acrylic, a clear one and put a camera in there?
Ian: “Can you put a camera in there?” is probably our number one question. We have not for a few reasons, for instance like the clear shell then becomes your lens and when your lens is driving around on concrete like your image quality will probably drop pretty quickly. A tactical reason is Bluetooth is, it is pretty low bandwidth so transferring images would be extremely slow. So we would have to also put Wi-Fi in it or something.
ROBOTS: Or a very low-resolution video and that is not nice.
Ian: Right. And then like concerns of like a camera like on the ground looking up at people is also a concern.
ROBOTS: Yeah privacy issues. And for you as a small company I mean and this is something that when we reduce to small software companies but we are not used to small hardware companies and I mean security and all these things. I mean that is truly a challenge to, as a small company, handle all these ones. You are in Boulder Colorado, could you talk a bit about the, because what I understand is that there is a very active hardware and software, but actually a robotic scene in Boulder Colorado. Can you talk a bit about that?
Ian: Yeah there are tons of robotic companies around Boulder and Denver. There is of course us, there is Modular Robotics, we have SparkFun there which is huge in the hobbyist scene, RoadNarrows Robotics, Gamma Two and I think a lot of that comes from just all the tech companies in general that are around that area with you know all the big IBM, AMD, ILinks Seagate so all these engineers are there. We started a Boulder for Robots MeetUp earlier this year and the turnout is probably a 100 to 150 people per meeting like it is pretty cool to see people from all these different robotic companies there and just people from the community there interested in robotics, so yeah it is definitely a growing scene.
ROBOTS: Very interesting to hear from this and it is really nice that you can actually go into and develop hardware this way. I think this is for robotics, which is hardware. I think it is essential that we try to streamline the process of developing hardware because it has been far too expensive and hard before. So thank you very much for being part of the podcast and we will check the Spheroverse.com …
ROBOTS: … for all the cool stuff and of course Sphero’s own homepage.
Ian: Yeah. And our main site is gosphero.com
ROBOTS: Yeah, and I am thinking we are going to find this under many Christmas trees coming that season.
Ian: Cool, yeah we have got a lots of retail stores and online so lot’s of places to get it.
ROBOTS: Perfect. Thank you.