Sphero CEO Paul Berberian talks BB-8, STEM and plans to get a robot in every home

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

April 8th 2016 at 11:07AM
UPDATED April 14th 2016 at 1:18PM
Sphero CEO Paul Berberian talks BB-8, STEM and plans to get a robot in every home

Last year’s BB-8 toy put robotics company Sphero firmly on the toy industry’s radar. Billy Langsworthy talks to Sphero CEO Paul Berberian about his vision for putting an entertainment robot in every home.

How long has Sphero been in operation?

The company was founded in 2010 with the idea to create things in the real world that could be controlled from our smart devices. What emerged was the notion of connected play. We wanted to build fun robots that you could control and play with through smart devices. It allows kids to fuse their digital life with physical play.

We launched in late 2011. Last year we launched BB-8 and it’s been a tremendous success. It was a number one toy and we’ve sold well over one million units. It’s a great success.

New from us is the Force Band, coming out this autumn. It will work with BB-8 and it allows you to control BB-8 like a Jedi. You control it using the force, or using gestures. As you move your arm, BB-8 will respond. You push away, BB-8 will go away. You pull towards you, it will come towards you.

It’s incredibly precise and requires a little bit of Jedi discipline; you can’t just throw your arms around like you’re doing calisthenics. But within 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll be a Jedi master.

The Force Band will also offer other gameplay, it wont just be for BB-8. There’ll be some standalone games.

How did the deal with Disney for BB-8 come about?

The company went through an accelerator in 2010. We have two founders and I was their mentor, then I joined as CEO right after the start-up accelerator. The company was doing great and enjoyed fantastic sales but in 2014 we heard about an accelerator that Disney was hosting. 

I thought that we were big enough for our COO run the business while the two founders and myself went through an accelerator a second time.

On the second day of the programme, we had the opportunity to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger. At that time, no-one knew anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he pulled out his iPhone and showed us pictures from the set. He pointed to BB-8 and told us ‘that’s the next big droid. It looks a lot like what you guys are building now, could you turn it into a product?’

From that meeting, eventually we got the license to create the app-controlled BB-8 and it’s been a tremendous success.

Are there more licensed product on the way from Sphero?

Where it makes sense. We don’t want to become a pure licensing firm.

We want to find IP that could really benefit from a high-end play experience. We think there’s a category for top IP having the ultimate encapsulation of that concept represented in a high-end product.

We’re looking for those opportunities and Disney has the best IP out there so we’ll continue to work with Disney.

What are your plans for this year?

Our big vision is to put an entertainment robot in every home. It means advancing the technology and introducing it to the marketplace at a measured pace so that everyone starts becoming comfortable with having robots in the house.

You may have a vacuum cleaner in your house that’s a robot but you won’t have a relationship with your vacuum cleaner. We want to put characters in your house and we want those characters to uniquely understand the different members of your family and adjust its behaviour based on your interests.

We’re trying to advance the play experience and the Force Band is an example of exploring issues around control. We’re also going to be doing a lot with voice recognition and image recognition in future products, so we’re trying to push the technology to the next level.

As a tech-focused company, how have you been welcomed into the toy industry?

We don’t see ourselves as being a part of the toy industry.

We had a small booth at New York Toy Fair but our big booth was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. We also do big shows focused on education because that’s core to what we’re doing. Robots should teach us as well as entertain us.

We came to the toy fair because it’s one of the channels of distribution for us but it’s not the only one. If you look at where we sell our product, we achieved top toy status without actually being in mass market or toy stores.

Would you like your products to be in more toy stores?

We want to be in the stores that will properly promote and sell the product and that have the right clientele for the price points that we’re trying to hit.

We’re targeting people that appreciate high quality technology. We’re not going to be selling into convenience stores. There’s a great market for that but that’s not us. We’re a premium product that will see people investing in a really unique play experience that makes the tech disappear and brings characters to life.

You’re a US firm but how important is the UK market to you?

The UK is our second largest market outside of North America. It’s the gateway to Europe. It’s a huge anchor point for us and always will be.

What is the creative process behind your products?

What people don’t realise is that we have more software engineers than we do hardware engineers. We look at the hardware as the canvas and the software as the paint. When you put the two together you get a work of art.

We put a lot of energy in making sure we have beautiful hardware that is rugged, reliable and hopefully indestructible, but it really comes alive with the software.

A tremendous amount of effort is going into the software of something like the Force Band to make sure we get those gestures right as it needs to feel authentic. It needs to be repeatable and learnable so you don’t feel like you’re fighting the tech.

How far can your technology take toys?

We’re not designing our own chips in Silicon Valley. We’re not that kind of tech company. What we do better than anyone else is stitch together the latest and greatest technology to build an experience that the world hasn’t seen before.

Our products could not have been built five years ago. Some of them couldn’t have been built two years ago, because the level of technology wasn’t there yet to support that type of product. The experience you’re getting now with BB-8, you couldn’t have built it in 2002.

Has your BB-8 fulfilled its potential in the toy space yet?

We still haven’t seen the impact of the children’s market on BB-8.

Kids have seen The Force Awakens once, maybe twice, but it’s only when the DVD comes out that they’ll start to see it five or six times and start falling in love with the characters.

We think BB-8 will have tremendous legs in 2016 and beyond because of all the other movies that are coming out.

Also, the Force Band will also create a whole new experience. We want it to be a standalone product but our view is that if you buy one of our products, you should have an awesome experience. If you buy two, they should be able to work together, but also independently. If they work together, it creates a different experience that you didn’t have in the past.

STEM is a sexy word in the toy space now. How important is having an educational aspect to products to Sphero?

Half a million kids have already used the Sphero ball in the classroom. Thousands of schools around the world are using them. Education is a critical component of our business. We’ve built an incredible software app that makes it easy to programme but exposes all the depth of things you can do there.

To bring this type of technology into classrooms you need fantastic software and we’ve invested millions of dollars into our software development, which elevates the experience.

What’s more important is that we’ve designed a product that fits with the concept of the classroom. The battery lasts for the length of a class, you can put a dozen robots into a class inexpensively, they’re indestructible and you get great support from a software standpoint.