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Adam Wilson: Open products take away limitations

“The first Sphero sucked,” Adam Wilson said Wednesday during his presentation at our Big Kansas City event.

Prototype your minimal viable product

The co-founder and chief software architect of Boulder-based startup Sphero nevertheless encouraged attendees to prototype their ideas. “What’s your minimal viable product?” He asked. For Sphero, a spherical robotic gaming system that fits easily in your hand, the shortlist consisted of:

  • The hardware: a polycarbonate ball;
  • An internal device that Wilson compared to a mini Segway, for balance;
  • Wireless communication to communicate with the controller (your smartphone);
  • The six-axis IMU, a navigational unit that lets the ball know where it’s at, where it’s going, and if it’s hit a wall;
  • Its API and SDK (software development kit).

Sphero is also Android and iOS compatible and is waterproof. It offers an hour of play, and over 20 games and apps are available for download to play on your smartphone. It’s a cross between a physical device and a virtual one. “You’ve seen it with Kinect, you’ve seen it with the Wii,” Wilson said. “There’s something inherently awesome about swinging your arm and seeing the club in the game swing too.”

Have an API or SDK

Wilson recalled being surprised at how many consumer electronic devices don’t have an API. “A lot of big companies are failing at this,” he said. “Very few of them had anything where I could actually do something fun with the device.” Wilson and co-founder Ian Bernstein wanted to create hardware where the apps were able to change what the hardware did.

An essential part of ensuring that flexibility and reducing the limitations of Sphero was ensuring the “product is as open as possible.” Wilson recalled that an occasion when one of Sphero’s engineers hacked the robot into a child’s wheelchair, a child who’d never been able to interact with a gaming device of that sensitivity. “The SDK is what did it,” Wilson said. “If we didn’t have an SDK, we’d have said, ‘Oh you need a smartphone,’ and they’d have been like, ‘yeah, that’s not awesome for us.’ “

Utilize the data you have

Sphero’s robotic sensors mean a more informed augmented reality than a user would get from just the visual data supplied by most AR tech. For example, in Sphero’s 3D game Sharky the Beaver, Sharky appears on smartphone screens to actually be standing on your floor rather than floating above it and running into couches rather than walking through them.

Those sensors also mean lots of data accumulates about how Sphero is being used. Developers have access to information such as average play-area dimensions, average length of play, how often the ball runs into things, and so on. Wilson said those recorded facts go farther in improving product than playtests do.

Talk to people who’ve been there, done that

“If you don’t surround yourself with mentors while you’re doing this stuff,” Wilson said, “you’re going to die.” It may sound harsh, he admitted, but it’s important to talk to people who’ve already done or already tried to do what you want to do. “We wouldn’t have a product, I wouldn’t be here, if we didn’t have great mentors.”

Big Kansas City is a two-and-a-half-day event that aims to inspire, educate and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the heart of the Midwest. Produced by Silicon Prairie News, it’s part of the Big Series, the nation’s most ambitious events on innovation and entrepreneurship.


Credits: Video by Quadrant5. Snippet photo by Kenny Johnson Photography.

The Big Kansas City Video Series is presented by NIC, Inc.

NIC Inc. is the nation’s leading provider of official government portals, online services, and secure payment processing solutions. The company’s innovative eGovernment services help reduce costs and increase efficiencies for government agencies, citizens, and businesses across the country.

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