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Boulder toy robot maker Sphero builds on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and lives to tell the tale of its BB-9e droid”



Sphero’s StarWars line of connected toy robots, BB8 (left), RD-D2 and BB9E at the Sphero campus in Boulder, Colorado on Dec. 1, 2017. Sphero specializes in connected robotic toys. (Amy Brothers, The Denver Post)

As BB-8 rolled out for its big-screen debut in 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” an audience of Sphero employees inside Century Theatre in Boulder immediately noticed the same thing: The new droid sounded different from the toy robot the Boulder company had designed, developed and started selling in stores a few months earlier.

“We were so familiar with the robot at that time. We noticed onscreen that these were different sounds. They were a little different from what we put in our robot,” said Adam Wilson, who, with Ian Bernstein, co-founded Sphero in 2010. “We updated the app and pushed the new sound to BB-8 to make it film perfect.”

Sphero’s ability to update its toys long after a customer buys one is a way that the company shares its passion for robotics with a growing audience. Another way: Sphero makes toys that cause people to smile, while giving children a glimpse into the world of computer programming. And the way toymaking starts is with the people of Sphero, including anyone from Wilson to executive assistant Jasmine Kuliasha, a mother of two.

Wilson recently tag-teamed with Anya Grechka, a mechanical engineer, and Dave Hygh, principal firmware engineer, and other members of the prototyping team to design a tiny circuit board to show that a smaller ball robot could be made. Sphero Mini debuted in stores in September, costing $50, a much lower price than its past robots.

Kuliasha pitched an idea for a toy at Sphero Product Accelerator, the company’s biannual week-long brainstorming meeting. Although she’s not an engineer, she drew some sketches and presented her idea.

“It’s a much cheaper, smaller idea that everyone really liked. It could go viral,” said Wilson, who said Kuliasha then worked with engineers for a week to build a prototype. “Then we go through this thing called Phase Gate where we look at it again. Does it make sense? Should we invest all the money to build the tools and all that? And actually, … it just passed through Phase Gate. The product is going to be made by Sphero.”

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