There’s a new four-wheeler on the market this week. It’s highly customizable, can navigate over all sorts of terrain and is smartphone-compatible. It’s also the size of a shoebox.

Meet the latest project from Boulder-based tech company Sphero. RVR (pronounced “rover”), made its public debut, with a $250 price tag, on Tuesday. The project launched on Kickstarter in February, getting fully funded at $150,000 in the first 72 hours of the campaign, and finished with $1 million by the time of the campaign’s end.

This is just the latest of Sphero’s programmable robots, though it’s the most advanced, yet. Sphero product manager Jasmine Kuliasha called RVR “the robot we wish we had when prototyping new projects.”

The robot is a functional base of sorts, so that programmers and designers don’t have to start entirely from scratch. Multiple plug-in ports of different compatibilities allow users to link it with other coding tools like Raspberry Pi or Arduino. Users can then program both RVR as well as the attached parts through the Sphero Edu app.

Moving in one direction seems like a simple task, but Kuliasha said that it can be incredibly tricky to set up right. RVR not only drives straight, it also self-corrects as it goes.

“Mobility gets people stuck in the weeds,” Kuliasha said. “We know how to do that, so now the user has that set up and doesn’t need to worry about it.”

Interchangeable plates connect outside parts with RVR’s system to allow for prototyping developments. These plates can be removed and implemented on a different base model, maintaining the connections between items that are plugged in. However, RVR can also be part of the final project from the get-go, eliminating the need for creators to
design a new body.

For example, one of RVR’s initial users programmed it to work with a Raspberry Pi as well as a camera, so that as the robot drove around, it could name the things it was seeing. The user built this prototype so that a blind friend could “see” the world, in a way.

“It’s forever expandable and forever useful,” Kuliasha said.

Though anyone can use RVR, Kuliasha said it’s geared toward kids and beginners who are learning about coding and programming, either in a classroom or on their own, in anticipation for future jobs that might not exist yet. Sphero in general has focused toward education in the last few years.

“Even if you don’t become a coder, getting kids to use design thinking is so important,” Kuliasha said. “It trains their brains to be more open and think in new ways.”

A trend toward tech

RVR is just one of many robots and technological teaching aids that are increasingly used in the classroom. Boulder Valley School District recently finished providing every school in the district with a maker kit, equipped with both simple and complicated tools to use in the classroom. While these kits are only meant for a few people at a time, there are multiple mobile maker sets circulating throughout the district that are equipped to handle an entire class.

While students learn skills like coding and programming, they also pick up so-called “soft” skills like problem-solving, creativity and team collaboration. Jared Riesel, currently a teacher librarian at Eldorado PK-8, works with technology around the school and acknowledged that it’s certainly more frustrating for some kids than others. But he also said that part of the merit of technology like this comes from teaching kids to persevere in a way that traditional schooling techniques might not always encourage.

“Students are constantly hitting roadblocks, but they get excited enough to stick with it,” Riesel said. “It’s easy to start them out, and almost impossible to max out their learning potential.”

This sort of technology benefits kids and teachers alike. Riesel said that as long as teachers focus on the learning goals of having robots in the classroom, they don’t have to be experts to apply it effectively, as it’s student-centered by design.

“When students are given the freedom to explore, they find it’s fun and they forget they’re learning complex skills,” Riesel said. “You see a level of excitement, better classroom behavior, all sorts of benefits. Students like hands-on learning and doing something with what they’ve previously learned in a new in relevant way.”

Matthew Jonas

The RVR climbs through a test track at Sphero’s offices in Boulder on Thursday.



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