Robot Wars – Sphero Mini vs Ozobot Bit

Introduction

2017 has been the year of dubious TV comebacks. Take the Crystal Maze; for all his charms, Richard Ayoade is no Richard O’Brien and the 2017 version never hit the heights of its 90s predecessors and who really wants to see Blind Date back on our screens? Some things have had their time and are better left in the past. Thankfully there was a more welcome return in 2016 – Robot Wars. Why it ever went away in the first place is a mystery, but the ‘maker’ culture and the growth in bedroom computing brought about by affordable computers such as the Raspberry Pi has cleared the ground for a new generation of robot builders and inventors.

Today’s Robot Wars competitors weigh in at around 110kg and can be anything up to 2m in length. However, these are more modest robots around, but which have a similar purpose – to enthuse and inspire children into pursuing their own ambitions in STEM. The protagonists in this particular battle weigh in at a rather more modest combined 55g – that’s 46g for the Sphero Mini and a featherweight 9g for the Ozobot Bit. This post will evaluate the merits of both these devices and compare them to each other, with a leaning towards their educational potential.

First Impressions

Both these devices have a feeling of quality about them, possibly more so the Sphero, though this could be down to its extra weight from the gyroscopic features. I’ve not seen the packaging for the Ozobo

 

t other than online (I am trialling it on behalf of Computing At School) but from what I can see it looks and feels like you would expect for a £50+ gadget.

The Spehro’s packaging is a thing of beauty, with the ball sitting proudly in its perspex box and the peripherals tucked neatly below. Once in us, the lower half of the perspex box makes a useful stand; without it you would run the risk of it rolling of a table or desk. The Ozobot comes with a set of cards which the robot can follow, whilst the Sphero has a set of cones and bowling pins which you can have fun with whilst you master the basic controls. Having not seen the Ozobot’s packaging I won’t call which is better, but I can say I was very impressed with the Sphero.

I’ll call it a score draw.

Sphero Mini 1 – 1 Ozobot Bit

Getting Started

Both devices are charged via a micro USB charger. The Ozobot’s is exposed, so therefore very easy to locate, whilst the Sphero’s is found by removing the outer case. Whilst this is not much of an inconvenience, if you were dealing with a class set, it would make the charging process a bit more laborious. The flip side is that it means when it’s in operation there’s nothing to interfere with its shape and clean lines. To get up an running with the Ozobot you simply need to power it on, calibrate it and pop it onto one of the supplied templates and you’re away. From there you can quickly experiment with your own designs – all you need is a piece of paper and a thick felt tip pen. There is slightly more to setting up the Sphero Mini. You need the Sphero Mini app (IOS, Android) to pair with your device via bluetooth, then as with the Ozobot there’s a quick calibration activity which you complete on your tablet or phone – once that’s complete you can control your robot remotely in a variety of ways, more of that later.

For it’s ease of charging and simple out of the box operation this is a narrow win for the Ozobot.

Sphero Mini 1 – 2 Ozobot Bit

Controlling your Robot

There are many similarities between the Mini and the Bit, but this isn’t one of them – these two devices are controlled in very different ways. The Mini is more conventional in that it relies on an app based interface via bluetooth. The app enables you to control it with a joystick type interface or by facial movements and expressions. Both are good fun and you get immediate results, just be careful you have accurately calibrated it, otherwise it will disappear in all sorts of random directions. The cones and skittles provided in the box are a neat way for you to practice finer control of your robot. The Bit is controlled via a colour sensor on the base of the robot which enables it to follow lines on a page or a screen. You can control it by adding colour combinations to the lines to perform actions relating to speed or direction. With this it is possible to program the Bit almost immediately without having to understand any technology or programming interface. With that in mind, for its practical programming potential, it’s another narrow win for the Ozobot.

Sphero Mini 1 – 3 Ozobot Bit

Usability (including apps)

There are a number of apps to support both these devices. The Mini is compatible with two Spehro apps – Sphero Mini (IOS, Android) and Sphero Edu (IOS, Android, Kindle, Chrome). Most will start with the Sphero Mini app. With this you can control your robot in a number of ways. Most will use either the joystick or the tilt functions. With both of these it’s not especially easy tp keep close control which tends to result in it regularly disappearing under tables and sofas. There’s also a slingshot mode which is good fun with the skittles – make sure you do it with a solid object behind them! Finally there’s the face mode – this is great fun and worked straightaway for me. The novelty wears off fairly quickly, but it would be good fun for younger children. There’s also three games which you can play, controlling them by holding the Mini in your hand and rotating it to move your character. This is a great feature and demonstrates the connection between the robot and the tablet very effectively.

The Sphero Edu app turns the Mini into a programmable device with a block based Java Script interface. It’s very accessible and easy to use to anyone new to coding or for anyone familiar with similar interfaces such as Scratch. There’s lots of scope for using this in the classroom, and a great way to develop physical computing beyond traditional floor bots.

I have not yet experienced any problems with the bluetooth connectivity, although with a set that may become an issue. In terms of charging, as mentioned previously the outer skin needs to be removed. Sphero advertise a 1 hour charge time, and 45 minutes usage – the former seems to be accurate. I have not tested it for 45 minutes, however when it’s been used briefly and then left, any remaining charge seems to trickle away quite quickly. You would definitely need to plan to charge these before any lesson.

The Ozobot also has a couple of core apps – the main Ozobot App and Ozogroove Bit (both IOS, Android), there is also Ozoblockly, which is the block based programming interface. This looks very similar to mBlocky and has obvious similarities with Scratch. Without the bluetooth connectivity of the Sphero, the Ozobot relies on a direct connection between the robot and the app. This is easy to achieve on a tablet – simply lay it on a flat surface and pop the Ozobot on the screen. It then picks up instructions using its colour sensor, and reacts accordingly. If you’re using Ozoblocky this involves holding the robot against the screen. This is a very different way of programming a robot which removes the need to communicate via what can be troublesome bluetooth. My experience has been mixed. The Bit doesn’t always pick up the light sequences first time, and I found the challenge mode on the Ozobot app frustrating. It frequently asked for the Ozobot to recalibrated, and even then often didn’t follow the expected path. When you complete a challenge, the inability of the robot to communicate back to the tablet means that nothing happens to signify you’ve succeeded. I can see this being a big problem in school. The range of things you can get an Ozobot to do is great, but if they’re not doing what you expect, the learning opportunities will quickly recede. Ozobot are marketing class sets of the Bits, but from my experience it would be very difficult to manage a whole class with the issues I’ve faced. More generally, I have found the apps to be clumsy and difficult navigate around.

It’s better when run on paper with hand drawn lines, though they need to be just the right thickness. I think this has more potential than using with the app. It removes the level of complexity the apps add, and gives the user a more direct connection between their instructions and the actions of the robot.

The Ozobot is easy to charge, and does so fully in about 45 minutes and functions for 90 minutes. This is about twice the time the Mini will run for, probably due to its lower mass and slower motor.

In terms of usability, it’s a clear win for the Sphero. The apps are also better designed and more user friendly which brings it back to parity with the Ozobot.

Sphero Mini 3 – 3 Ozobot Bit

Pedagogy

In terms of their potential as devices to facilitate learning, there’s not much to choose between them. The coding interfaces is where there is most potential, and both offer an accessible easy to use interface, but deliver the code in different ways. The ability to program away from technology is a key differentiator for the Ozobot, however this is offset by it’s sensitivity, and the need to frequently recallibrate.

Both Sphero and Ozobot have gone to great lengths to embrace the educational potential of their products. There are loads of freely available resources for both devices on the respective website. They each adopt a slight different model – Ozobot have a certified educator programme, whilst Sphero opt for a more open community. Personally, I prefer the Sphero model as it encourages more creativity and a greater breadth of resources.

Having not yet used either in lessons (I only have one of each) I will score this off the potential I can see in each device. The programming interfaces are as good as each other, but based on the more open community and better usability, it’s another, and this time decisive win for the Sphero Mini.

Sphero Mini 4 – 3 Ozobot Bit

Verdict

These are both great devices, which bring physical computing within reach for far more than was possible even only a couple of years ago and for that they should be applauded. They both have their merits, and have clearly been designed with education in mind – they are more than toys.

The Sphero Mini wins narrowly for me, based mainly on its better usability. This may well be a personal thing, others may prefer the on screen programming of the Ozobot to what can be (though not in my experience) the troublesome bluetooth of the Sphero.

If you are looking for a new way to get into physical computing, I would suggest you give both these devices a go – I’d be interested to find out how you get on.

I hope that this generation of affordable robots will inspire a new generation of roboteers, and ensure that this time, the mighty Robot Wars is back for good…

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Robot Wars – Sphero Mini vs Ozobot Bit

Computing at home – how parents can help

We had a parent’s evening last week at our school. Lots of parents showed a real active interest in computing. A number of people asked me how they could help support learning at home, and which apps or websites to use. Here is a quick summary of the tools I use with the children in school. Where possible I like to use apps which are free, however there are some where there is a small charge.

Key Stage One:

Bee-bot
We have a set of Bee-bots in Foundation Stage, so by the time the children get to year one they are familiar with these great little robots. There is an app which mirrors the physical robots and is a good introduction into how computers need algorithms (instructions) to function.
IOS Bee-bot app (free)

Blue-bot
This is an extension to Bee-bot and lets you see the algorithm as a whole. We will shortly have a set of Blue-bots in school. They do the same as Bee-bots, but can be controlled from an iPad via Bluetooth.
IOS Blue-bot app (free)
Android Blue-bot app (free)

A.L.E.X.
Another free app, which build on the skills learned in Bee-bot. A.L.E.X. is also based on controlling a robot, but with this app you can also build and design your own levels.
A.L.E.X IOS app (free)
A.L.E.X. Android app (free)

Scratch Jr
ScratchJr is a fantastic entry point for children to explore more open ended programming. It introduces characters, background, more movements, repeat loops and basic if/then routines and offers children the opportunity to experiment and play. There are lots of great ideas for projects on the ScratchJr website.
Scratch Jr IOS app (free)
Scratch Jr Android app (free)

Key Stage Two:

Scratch
The logical next step from ScratchJr, Scratch is a brilliant platform for children to broaden their skills, and to become part of a wider community, sharing their own ideas and borrowing from others. It is a block based platform which all children in Key Stage two will use at Lowerplace. Please see this post for instructions on how to register a Scratch account and why it is a great project to be involved in.

Scratch is web based and needs to be run on a PC or Mac with flash player installed.

Lightbot
Available online, an IOS app or on Android, this is a great too for developing logical thinking and introducing processes into programming. Lightbot also shows that there can be more than one solution to a problem and that some are more efficient than others. There is a free version with a limited number of levels and then paid versions for more levels and challenges.

Lightbot is part of Microsoft’s Hour of Code project, have a look at their website for lots of other great games and activities.
Lightbot free (IOS)
Lightbot full version (IOS) £2.99
Lightbot free (Android)
Lightbot full version (Android) – £2.33

CargoBot
Another app to develop logic and reasoning, but more challenging than Lightbot. The aim is to move pallets around using a crane which you program with loops and repeats. Make sure you start with the easiest levels!
Cargobot IOS (free)
Cargobot Android (free)
Erase All Kittens
This is great fun. There is a free demo version, or for £4 you can buy the full version. Erase All Kittens is a good way of progressing from block based tools such as Scratch to coding using characters, in this case with HTML. It’s a great activity to do with your child, you’ll be surprised what you can learn too.

Swift Playgrounds
This is a new app which has been developed by Apple for iPads. It is based on the Swift programming language which is used to develop many populart iPad apps. It’s not one I have much experience of yet, but I will be introducing it to children in Key Stage two next term.

Physical Computing

In addition to all these great apps and online tools, you can also experience physical computing at home for a reasonably modest outlay.

Codebug
Starting from about £10, codebugs are great little devices which you can program from a computer using a Scratch like interface. It has a set of LED lights which you can control from your computer as well as input and output ports for connecting peripheral devices.

BBC Microbit
Again starting from about £10 the Microbit is similar to the Codebug, but with more resources online.

Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a fully functioning computer which fits in the palm of your hand. you can buy one with a Linux operating system for about £45. Once you have connected a monitor, keyboard and mouse you can do pretty much anything you can do on a £1000+ PC or laptop. There are masses of online resources and accessories which you can add to Raspberry Pis such as cameras, sensors and motors – the possibilities are endless.

Crumble Kit
The Crumble is another cheap microcomputer which can perform a variety of functions. The kit comes with the main motherboard, an LED light, a power supply, a servo motor and an ultrasonic sensor. It also has all the wires and connectors you need for basic projects. Once you get familiar with it, you can combine elements, so you could make the light illuminate when the ultrasonic sensor is triggered. This is also programmed through a simple Scratch type interface.

Computing at home – how parents can help

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?

bett-header

My second visit to BETT and for the first time I visited the show for two days as I was fortunate enough to be released from teaching on Friday. A little bit of prior experience and a more intimate knowledge of the DLR made the journey down much more straightforward this year. It also helped that I didn’t lose my travelcard on the tube this time…

Having been before, I was a bit more focused in my aims this year – I wanted to see more of the speakers and more carefully target the stands. I guess less product, more pedagogy summed up my approach.

As soon as I got there two themes emerged very clearly – physical computing, mostly in the form of robotics and virtual reality, mostly in the form of Google. The sheer number and variety of robotics was mind boggling, the vast majority of it beyond the budget of a financially stretched (or not) primary school. I also thought there was a lot of product, but the links to learning were much less clear and in many cases non-existent. As is so often the case, you had to search carefully to find the pedagogy, and some of it came in a great little session –  ‘We are the droids’ in which Mic Hughes, Bill Harvey, Neil Rickus and Lucy Rogers shared their experiences of robotics in the classroom. This included the crumble bot, a low cost (£25ish) entry level robot which children can build and program themselves. When questioned on the key to success, the answer was watertight planning. It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you have to know what you’re doing and what the learning is. This shift towards physical computing is also blurring the lines between computing and DT which is both a challenge and opportunity for all schools.

I must, at this point give huge credit to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other organisation is doing more to promote computer science in education than they are. Not only were there a great variety of Pi themed stands and activities (real ones, with ideas you could try and touch), but they also launched the rather wonderful Hello World magazine, aimed specifically at educators. I have no idea have they can create such a quality publication and distribute it for free, but I’m very grateful they have.

The same themes were evident with VR – where’s the learning? I actually though Google might have made more of it on their stand, maybe they’re mindful it’s early days too. The number of VR suppliers out there surprised me. With Google offering a pretty strong option free of charge, I can’t see much space in the market. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them are around in three or four years time.

Other speakers I saw were Rajen Sheth, Senior Director of Product Management for Google for Education, who mercifully limited the hard sell and spent more time discussing Google’s principals for reimagining education. These hold true whether or not you are under the spell of the mighty G, and a couple of his phrases stuck with me. He discussed how learning should be personalised and measured, and that we should ‘ teach to the edges of the classroom’ meaning learning should be inclusive for everyone. He also highlighted that we should be equipping students with the skills to become life long learners. I’m writing this blog on a tool which didn’t exist before 2010, publishing it on a platform which was launched in 2003 which runs on the World Wide Web, which contrary to most children’s beliefs once didn’t exist. Enough said?

Another great session was Ashton Sixth Form College’s Digital Literacy Initiative by Brian Cooper and Dan Atkinson. You maybe wondering why I was at this one, being a primary practitioner, so time to declare a interest, it was recommended to me by my good mate Anton McGrath, who happens to be the Principal. I’m really glad for the tip off. The initiative is all about empowering teachers to use technology effectively by offering incentives and encouraging them to play to their strengths. We’ve all seen expensive, top down initiatives thrust on to over worked, under pressure teachers which are poorly implemented and supported and which probably get canned when the next big thing comes along. Ashton’s approach is the opposite, they encourage teacher led development, reward ideas (through an innovation of the month award,) support change through small, managed‪ and sustainable steps. It’s an approach that would work in any institution and is definitely something I will be pitching to our SLT.

Another theme which I noticed was the gradual move from up front to annual licensing costs. Three of the main apps I looked at – Explain Everything, Minecraft and Erase All Kittens, are all moving to annual licensing. Whether these are on a named or concurrent basis isn’t clear, neither is how they will enforce their licensing. In isolation the costs are not too prohibitive, but when combined they start to add up. If we were to licence all three it would come to around £10 per pupil. I can see why vendors we doing this, in a market where there are so many new tools emerging it makes sense to tie schools in to a longer term relationship. However, the reality is we’ll have to look at restricting some tools to narrower year groups, which is a shame when previously we could budget more easily with an up front cost.

I’ll leave the last word to a lad I sat next to on the DLR on my way out of the Excel. He was 17 or 18 years old and was discussing his career ambitions with his mum. First of all it was great to see a lad of that age actually communicating with his parent and there wasn’t a phone in sight. He recounted a meeting he had with his school careers advisor. He recounted how he told him that his goal was to become an investment banker, to which his advisor replied “I think you should focus on something more realistic.” At that point he described to his mum how he got up, turned around and left the room.

Maybe I learned more from that incidental exchange than I could at any conference. Keep the fire burning, son. We all should.

BETT 2017 – Where’s the Pedagogy?