Sphero Goes Extreme with New Ollie



Sphero, the little, round, programmable robot, rolled its way into many hearts since it was released in 2011, confounding pets and expressing a unique form of movement. It was a reimagining of both robots and remote control.

For its second act, the company is reimagining wheels — at least, wheels in the context of robots. So, meet Ollie, which is a Sphero-sized body, elongated slightly, and equipped with a wheel on either end. It’s not quite so omnidirectional as Sphero, but what it lacks in that department it makes up in creative programming that allows it to recognize its position and direction, and maintain its course in the face of bumps, jumps, and flips. But it stays true to — and even improves upon — Sphero’s programmable, hackable nature.

“The robot itself is always keeping track of its tricks, so it always knows how it’s oriented in the air, it knows if it’s in the air, it knows how many spins it’s done in the last certain amount of time. It’s actually doing those calculations on the actual robot, and then it sends the results up to the phone,” says Brandon Dorris, Sphero director of product development.

Earlier this year, Sphero released a video showing off the Ollie with a bunch of skaters and their skateboards. (Note the robot’s skate-inspired name.) The emphasis now is on more extreme play, but it’s still programmable — you can create tricks, the company points out, and Ollie will track its own air time, spins, and more.

Necessary for the zippier acrobatics was a refinement of Bluetooth LE. To get the phone to communicate with the Ollie faster, they needed to use LE, but LE can’t transfer as much information. So, to get the data across, the app sends them in packages of six, explains Dorris.

“It’s constantly checking itself, and its constantly giving feedback to the phone on what’s going on, so the phone can react to what’s actually happening in real life,” he says. “The person is really interacting with the toy, but the toy is interacting with the person at the same time.”

The apps for Sphero will also work with Ollie, including Draw N’ Drive, which follows routes, and Macro Lab, which teaches basic programming. Advanced users can even program in a version of BASIC. And the device itself is hackable, or more so at least than Sphero, which had to be cracked open if you wanted to get at its insides. Ollie opens easier, and later this year Sphero will be releasing a software development kit for it. “You can use it to create your own robots, or create your own things that you want to be able to control with Bluetooth LE,” says Dorris.

OllieProductHR-5562And Ollie is fast, up to 14 miles per hour. It’s that speed, along with the clever wheels that make it more of a driving machine than its predecessor. It drifts too, for those fans of The Fast and the Furious who aren’t ready to do so in their cars.

All that speed makes driving it a bit more challenging. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: “You get better over time. You learn how to control what you’re doing and get it to do what you want to when you want it to do it,” says Dorris. “It’s kind of this whole idea of mastery, and playing with it for a while. You feel better each time you play with it, because you get better at actually doing it.”

Hacking toys with Energia

Robert Wessels with a hacked Hexbug and Launchpad-enabled remote control.

Robert Wessels with a hacked Hexbug and Launchpad-enabled remote control.

maker-faire-bay-area-logo-2014The Texas Instruments MSP430 is similar to the Atmel ATmega micro-controller, however there are some differences, including a very low price, and some interesting refinements for low power consumption.

If you want to get your hands on one, the easiest way is to pick up a TI Launchpad developer board, however the big problem—at least until recently—both for the Launchpad and the MSP430 itself, was the programming environment. For a generation of makers used to the Arduino, the Eclipse-based development environment of the MSP430 was overly complicated and hard to use.

This was solved with the arrival of Energia. With cross platform support—for Windows, OS X and Linux—just like the Arduino environment itself, it brings the Wiring and Arduino frameworks to the MSP430, and the TI Launchpad. That means you can take your Arduino source code—your sketch—and drop it directly onto the MSP430. It makes the MSP430, once horribly hard to use, as easy to use as the Arduino.

I talked with Energia creator Robert Wessels and Texas Instruments’ Adrian Fernandez about the TI Launchpad and the Energia Project, and about the hacked Hexbug toys they’ve brought with them to Maker Faire this year.


Making Toys With Modio at MakerCon


I love toys. Who doesn’t? That might be why there has been a non-stop crowd around a little display full of custom action figures. We got to get a quick rundown of the Modio application to see what is going on. In short, Modio is a tool for building custom 3D printed action figures.

When you fire it up, you’re presented with a blank slate. You select body parts from an existing library and start placing them together. As you drag them around, they pop together on their own when you get them close enough to a compatible point. After you’ve got your body parts arranged how you would like, you can begin to alter the color as well as the surface texture of the model.  It took me a total of maybe 20 seconds to smash together a multi-legged monstrosity with dragon scales.


At some point, you’re going to want to print this toy. The Modio application will automatically configure the pieces properly for the 3D printer of your choice. It can even automatically sort the pieces into different print jobs so you can swap out your filaments for different colors.


In case you couldn’t tell from the video, we really had fun with this project. The future for modio looks bright because this tool will only get more interesting as the parts library continues to grow.

Just Add Sharks to Maker Faire UK

MakerFaire UK Banner

This post is coming to you live from Maker Faire UK being held this weekend at the Life Science Centre here in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Just Add Sharks

Just Add Sharks is fast becoming something of a fixture in the British maker community, it’s a tiny company started by Martin Raynsford and Dominic Morrow selling low-cost Chinese-built laser cutters, but if you’ve never spent serious time with a laser cutter you’re probably going to be surprised by some of the demos they’ve brought along with them to Maker Faire UK. Because they don’t just sell laser cutters, they use them, and they’re passionate advocates for what you can do with them.

I managed to catch up with Martin and talked to him about a couple of the things he—and Dominic—have brought along…


First of all, I just had to talk to him about his Arduino-powered Etch-a-Sketch hack—they’ve bypassed the laser cutter’s control board to and used an Arduino patched into the machine’s wiring using some of the existing connectors to drive the cutting head directly from the Etch-a-Sketch’s dials.

But I also had to talk to him about the intricate and utterly fascinating laser cut Marble Machines that they’ve brought along which evolved out of prototypes for the lifting mechanisms for his Mechanical Donkey Kong build a couple of years ago.

After building these miniature machines Martin is now hard at work rebuilding his Donkey Kong game, so hopefully we’ll see that at next year’s Maker Faire UK.

The Belly Button Book, Kid Tested


I have a special place in my heart for toys and children’s books. They were an important part of my childhood and a huge influence on my latest project.

I created ‘The Belly Button,’ an interactive children’s book and set of wireless toys that allows curious children to bring the story to life in their own bedroom. The reader—or child being read to—can make parts of the story go beyond the page. The child wears a toy button on their belly that when pressed, activates strange things to occur in their own room.


The project is based around a children’s book I wrote and illustrated. A typical Seussian scenario, one day a baby wakes with a button where her navel should be. Her obviously worried parents are compelled to press it. When the lights flicker in the book (press the button), a lamp flickers in the room. When the house shakes in the story (press the button), actual toys get knocked off of the shelves. When an elephant zips along in an airplane (press the button), elephant and jet sound effects are triggered.

The physical book is filled with sensors and knows what page it is on. Wirelessly, it transmits this information to the button the child is holding. If something is supposed to happen on that particular page, the button begins to glow prompting the child to press it. When pressed, the corresponding wireless toy (that has been hidden somewhere in the child’s room) is activated. When the book isn’t being read, the toys are just ordinary toys, but during story time they come alive.


I’m an uncle to some amazing kids, I’m also lucky enough to know some very understanding parents. So I had plenty of children to user test ‘The Belly Button’ on.

Typically, I find user testing a little stressful, you see your project through fresh eyes and see glaring problems or design flaws. I figured this round was going to be a bit rougher, you don’t know what you’re going to get with kids. Children were going to be experiencing my project for the first time, I was worried they wouldn’t “get it” or worse they wouldn’t like it.

It turns out my favorite part of the entire project was testing it out on the kids. Children are the best at immediate and truthful feedback. There is no filter and they care little about sparing your fragile ego. You know when they’re engaged and when you lose them. You learn what you got right and what you got so very wrong. And there was nothing sweeter than when a kid said “let’s read it again.”

Of all the things I learned from the kids, the most unexpected was the new sense of drive I felt to complete the project. Now more than ever I want ‘The Belly Button’ to become a reality. I can’t wait until the book and toys are up on shelves and kids and parents can get their own.

‘The Belly Button’ is currently still in the prototype phase and looking for a publisher.

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Designing a Vinyl Toy with Joe Ledbetter


Although I have been working as a full-time artist in Los Angeles for more than 10 years I am probably best known as an independent toy designer. Toy design is something I fell into after I first discovered the world of designer toys while wandering into a Kidrobot store on Haight Street in San Francisco back in 2002. Since my first glance at their bizarre toy collection I instantly knew it was something I had to be a part of and, although I had no background in toys I would figure out a way. Since then, I’ve created almost 200 designer toys and held toy releases and signings all over the world; from Amsterdam to Beijing and Tokyo to Istanbul.

For the past nine months I’ve been working away on a toy project called The Chaos Bunnies, and I’ll share with you the steps I took to make it happen. From beginning to end I documented my role from conception, design, packaging, photography, promotion, and everything in-between. I really hope you can take something away from this. It might be a bit extensive, but I thought it was important to show how much time, effort and elbow grease goes into making these and that none of this just magically happens. I hope you enjoy this backstage pass as I welcome you into my creative process.

Concept It all starts with an initial idea or concept for a toy. In this case I wanted to base this project on my popular character called Mr. Bunny. Mr. Bunny has been depicted in my paintings since I first began showing in galleries over 10 years ago. I have always treated him a bit like a punching bag – depicting him in all kinds of ironic, unfortunate, and precarious situations. The idea here is to bring Mr. Bunny to life in 3D, mini-figure sized, and in a variety of shapes and personalities. 1a 1b

The Chaos Bunnies will be a “blind boxed mini-figure series” – a staple in the designer toy world, meaning these will be an assortment of 4-inch tall figures boxed randomly in identical packaging. Like baseball cards, you don’t know which one you might get. As some figures are more rare than others this encourages collecting, and brings excitement, trading, community and often a touch of frustration to the designer toy collecting game.

The beauty about creating a designer toy is that it really isn’t intended for kids. These are truly art pieces, made by artists with the intent to be art. Almost always made in limited editions of 1,000 pieces or lower these are often seen as 3D fine art prints or sculpture, but instead of using bronze casting, it utilizes more democratic and affordable materials like plastic and vinyl. The materials make them playful but they can be highly valuable. Although retail prices for many figures can range from $15 – $200, aftermarket prices on some Designer toys can reach well over $10,000 based on the popularity of the artist and the size and rarity of the figures. It’s an art movement which began in Hong Kong and Japan in the late 1990’s and has spread internationally and in popularity and importance over the years.

Development Getting started on the Chaos Bunnies began by digging through my archive of bunny sketches, to remind myself what I’ve come up with in the past and revisit older and sometimes forgotten ideas.


Then it’s lists, lots of lists that I’ve kept for years of various bunny names and ideas. It’s all about narrowing down a cohesive group that can make sense not only thematically and aesthetically, but also with a sense of variety and difference. I want to include some classic bunnies, but add some exciting new stuff as well.


Turnarounds Moving on it’s time to sketch out the turnarounds of the figures. Turnarounds are like an architect’s blueprint; diagramming the front, back, top, bottom, and sides of the figures. In my case, the sketches are usually quite rough. After I scan them into the computer I can work them out in Adobe Illustrator where it’s much easier and faster to make precise and to-scale renderings of the figures.


Once I have my turnarounds completed in Illustrator, I’ll print them up and pencil-in artwork ideas to figure out what works best to further narrow this project down to 12 different figures.


At this point the factory needs two things from me: turnarounds of each of the 12 figures and artwork mock-ups so they can give a price estimate based on complexity of the artwork, sizes of the figures, how many molds will need to be made, and the amount of tooling required.


Factory Pricing / Negotiation Once I have all the turnarounds and mock-up artwork completed I copyright each character. Then it’s time to reach out to factories and get a price estimate on what exactly this project might cost. In the case of the Chaos Bunnies I worked with a company called The Loyal Subjects who financed the project and worked directly with a factory in China. Pricing will vary depending on your edition sizes, figure sizes, materials used, artwork complexity, and packaging. I often begin each project with my dream scenario of super complex artwork, small edition size, larger figures, and top-notch beautiful packaging materials, all of which is often too price prohibitive, so I just pull it back until I find a happy medium thats do-able.

In my personal experience the factories usually want you to cover all of their tooling/mold costs as well as 50 percent of the final product costs up front. I find that wiring tens of thousands of dollars to a factory the craziest and scariest part of the process. However with this Chaos Bunnies project I was not part of this process and was not privy to any of the specific numbers. Once the factory is paid the project officially gets underway, and the excitement begins.

Sculpture I know some artists who are great at sculpting their own figures, either by hand or with 3D software. I have found that there are some amazing in-house sculptors at some of the factories I work with in China, and prefer to work with them. Soon enough the factory sculptor will email initial sculpture photos based on my turnarounds. This is where I put on my art director hat and make notes, adjustments and tweaks to the images. Eventually after a few rounds of back and forth we nail this down. 5a 5b

Wax Samples Wax samples are then created from the sculptures. This is the final step in the sculpture phase, where the figure is smoothed out, fine-tuned and perfected before the final production molds are made. It’s always a good ideas to triple-check here that the eventual artwork deco will fit the shapes correctly because once I move forward I’ll need to live with these sculptures from here on out. It’s also time to remind the factory that I need those bunny heads to articulate.

6a 6b

Master Mold Pieces / Paint Samples It’s always exciting when the vinyl figures arrive! I always get the factory to ship me copies of the blank vinyl figures once they’ve been made. At this point the artwork deco is only in the tentative phase and it makes a world of difference if I can have these figures here and design the final artwork by hand.


Like with any painting I begin these designs with pencil sketching on the figures. Using the contours of each shape to get the most out of both the sculpts and the design. Obviously it’s much easier to make decisions with the figure in my hands than virtually in a computer with 2D low-res factory photos – which is your alternative.


Moving on, I just go for it and paint these doing my best to match the pantone colors I’ve already decided on. Toy design is a lot of work when it’s just one figure, but with a mini-figure series (as you can imagine) it’s literally 12 times the work. At this point you really start to feel that. But at the same time this is the most fun and exciting part of the process because they finally come to life in a real and tangible way.


One of the benefits of having these figures on hand is also that I can flatten out the artwork perfectly for the factory’s process of applying the art deco. If I give them just plain 2D turnarounds of the front, back, top, bottom and side profiles the deco artwork will be distorted because it’s on a curved surface. So it’s important for me to give them the exact deco that can perfectly wrap around the curvatures of the heads.



Vectorize Once these have all been painted I need to photograph them so I can trace my paint work in Illustrator to provide the factory with vector art that is usable for them to create pad prints and spray masks they will use to apply my artwork during production. This part of the process can be super tedious – and it’s really my least favorite part. Here I need to make templates of each figure at all angles – times 12. It’s pretty monotonous, but you just gotta plow through it.


Next, I move on the tracing the black linework of the figures. This is another point in the process where I begin to feel the factor of 12. This took me about 2 weeks to get through all the tracing, touch-ups, and fine tuning these vector files so they are absolutely as perfect as possible for the factory to use. I want to take all the guess work out of their hands. If there is a decision to be made I want to be the one to make it… I don’t want to leave anything to chance in the hands of the factory. It’s my job to be thorough and really answer in advance any questions that might arise down the road. It’s super important to be clear, make notes, and be as detail-minded as possible at this point.


Here we go! All the vector artwork is finally finished and sent out to the factory:


Packaging Once all the vector work is complete and emailed over to the factory I move right on to the packaging design. Based on the figure sizes the factory provides me with a perfectly sized template for both the individual blind boxes as well as the display case. Of course beginning with a rough sketch concept and moving forward on the design.


Just like with the figures, it always best to make design decisions if you have the object in your hands. So I make rough mock-ups – which leads to design adjustments. And once I feel I have something that works for me, I go forward with an actual full-scale mock up to get the perfect idea of how the final product will end up.




Photography A great benefit and pay off to having all the hand painted samples and full scale packaging is that I can go immediately into the promo photography of the Chaos Bunnies even before production at the factory has begun. I can develop all the promo materials early and take my time so I’m not scrambling at the last minute if a producer suddenly wants to do a pre-sale or something ASAP. I’m ready to go with something well thought-out and carefully designed.



Bonus Cards Now that I have the most important work under my belt – I get back to work sketching the set of cards that I want to include with each figure.



Art Deco corrections Soon enough photos of production samples appear in my inbox. These are always urgent as you don’t want to be the reason production might slow down, so I drop everything to get notes and corrections over ASAP. With a bit of back and forth, these all eventually get approved. This is one of the toughest parts of the process, because the factory often makes mistakes here. It’s important to be calm, and clear with the corrections and not to overdo it. I always prioritize and fix the important things first. 12a 12b

Often if you give them too much to correct or the correction is too minuscule you receive revisions where maybe some of your corrections are fixed, and new mistakes are made. Sometimes you end up with more issues than you started with. One step forward, two steps back sort of a thing. Of course you want a perfect product, but at the end of the day there needs to be an understanding of what is feasible on a production scale including the limitations of the factories equipment, time constraints, and what you can get away with. I’ve found that my biggest successes and the figures I’m most proud of are a concerted effort between you and the factory. Obviously it’s a bumpier road if it’s not a team effort. Eventually all the art deco on the production samples are approved by me, production goes full steam ahead.

Promotion As the producer decides to go with a pre-sale months before the delivery of the figures, I began to roll out my promotion materials. Starting with video teasers and then on to full-on reveals, doing my best to stir up excitement and anticipation months before the actual release. 13a

Thanks for following me on my designer toy adventure! I also made a video of the process which you can check out below. I can’t wait for the Chaos Bunnies to finally arrive (hopefully March/April 2014). Hope you enjoyed the process and learned a few things. Be sure to visit my website for more news and info on my Chaos Bunnies and other upcoming projects at joeledbetter.com. Have a great day and we’ll see ya next time!

DohVinci: First Step Toward a Play-Doh 3D Printer?

Play-Doh's DohVinci

Play-Doh’s DohVinci

Play-Doh, Hasbro’s glutenous modeling compound with the Proustian aroma, has offered hand-powered extruding kits since your parents were eating the stuff in the 1970s.

Very Early Play-Doh Extruder, 1980s edition

Very Early Play-Doh Extruder, 1980s edition

But this year, at a invitation-only preview event away from the prying eyes at Toy Fair, Hasbro was showing off the latest in their Play-Doh extrusion kits, tailor made to jump on the Next Big Thing: the DohVinci.

Looking like a hand-held glue gun, the DohVinci appeared a few days after Hasbro announced a collaboration with 3D Systems, to, in corporate speak, “co-develop, co-venture and deliver new immersive, creative play experiences powered by 3D printing for children and their families later this year.” The juxtaposition of the two events has set some industry minds pondering why the company showed off a product that is a primitive extruder along with a new formulation of Play Doh that produces smooth results when run through that toy.

We’ve been waiting for the Play-Doh 3D printer to become a reality since it was foreshadowed by an April Fools’ day prank on ThinkGeek.com.

Of course, extruding Play-Doh (and similar materials) through a 3D printer is not new. Hyrel has been doing it since sometime around Winter 2013 with their desktop printers the “Engine” and “System 30“.  (The Engine was not quite ready for Make’s July / August printer testing, and the System appeared later.)

Both these printers can print in multiple materials by using Hyrel’s swappable extruders.  The EMO-25 extruder can print in Play-Doh, clay, Plasticine and Silicone RTV.  It’s already available for pre-order.

Here’s a vine of the Hyrel System in action at CES: Printing Play-Doh

There is an open container of Play-Doh under the printer bed. You can see it in the Vine.
The news here (if there is news here) is that Hasbro  — an established toy company — seems to be taking the first steps toward a 3D printer and at a very cheap price point (at least, that’s what we expect; Hasbro is being very close-mouthed about this. ) [huff_gallery ids=375028,375027,375026] With the toy extruder being nothing to get excited about on it’s own, the development that might make this thing worthwhile is a new formulation of Play-Doh, different from both regular Play-Doh and last year’s Play-Doh Plus. According to Hasbro spokesperson Kristina Coppola, the new formulation “will harden overnight into a permanent end creation that can last up to a year. However, when using DohVinci if you do not like what you did – you can simply wipe it away which gives you flexibility and forgivability if you want to make a change.”  Hasbro claims that the new formula can be extruded in lines as narrow as 3/32 inch (approximately 2.38 mm)
DohVinci Dough

DohVinci Dough

The change in the formulation of Play-Doh definitely paves the way for more easily extruding this material from a more standard 3D printer. We wouldn’t be surprised to see someone push New-Doh through an 3D printer extruder within a few days of this appearing on the market.

Sneak Peek: Nerf Combat Creatures!

Nerf Combat Creatures Attacknid

Nerf Combat Creatures Attacknid

What does it take to get your idea for an awesome toy into the hands of an actual toy company that can produce and distribute it? For Jaimie Mantzel, it took a lot of work, a lot of travel, and not a little bit of luck.

From Jaimie’s Facebook page:

“It’s funny having lived right near Hasbro’s headquarters for 6 years. Every time I went past their building I thought, ‘If only I could get someone in there to look at my inventions…’ I haven’t lived there in over a decade, but now they’re selling my stuff.”

The physical distance between Hasbro’s headquarters and where Jaimie used to live was about 100 meters. However, the practical distance was huge. He had to drive to NYC to meet Dr Graeme Taylor from the Wow! Stuff toy company. Then he traveled to England a few times, and to China about 20 times. He sent gigabytes of CAD files, argued for what he wanted, and eventually his walking “spider tank” robot toy was in stores like Target, Toys R Us and Amazon sold under the label Combat Creatures Attacknids.

Then Jaimie’s new dart blaster design for the Attacknids caught the attention of someone at Hasbro, the maker of Nerf toys. He was in the right place at the right time, and this week Hasbro unveiled the Nerf branded Combat Creatures at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

Wow! Stuff and Hasbro announced the Nerf partnership this Tuesday during the toy fair. The updated Nerf design is expected to be available this fall.

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Drive Around Your Tablet with Ozobot


Ozobot robotic game pieces can travel on screens or paper. Photo: Kathy Ceceri

I’ve got robots on the brain right now, so it was only natural that I attended Toy Fair New York this year with an eye toward finding new robotic toys. One that grabbed my attention was a tiny robot wanderer called Ozobot.

Lots of screen-based toys for kids aim at breaking that glassy-eyed stare (parents, you know the one I mean) and, if possible, encouraging them to interact with others. Ozobot achieves these aims with the help of a line-following robot that can read lines and colors as it literally drive around on your tablet or smart phone.

Looking like a spacesuit helmet, albeit one the size and shape of a chocolate bonbon, Ozobot works with iOS and Android devices and comes with gaming apps that can be used alone or with other players. It include a drawing game that lets you explore the range of Ozobot’s intelligence; a drag-and-drop tile game where you try to build a path for Ozobot to follow; and a game of chance where the route Ozobot chooses through a maze determines the winner.

What’s really cool is that Ozobot easily travels from screen to physical game board or paper and back again. Robotics and digital gaming fans can no doubt imagine many more ways to play with Ozobot — and future plans call for a program to allow third parties to develop their own apps for the Ozobot platform within a year.

Watch for more posts this week from Toy Fair New York.