Late last year Sphero revealed that it was going to stop producing toy robots based on popular characters like R2D2, BB-8, and Lightning McQueen. Many wondered if the company’s decision to return its focus to the educational market signified the beginning of its end, but on Friday Sphero announced it has acquired littleBits, creating one of the largest makers of STEAM-focused toys.
Sphero first made a name for itself with a quirky, remote control ball that paved the way for smartphone-controlled toys. The technology it developed also put it in the perfect position to capitalise on the popularity of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an RC BB-8 toy that moved and behaved exactly like the popular character in the film. It was a huge hit, and led Sphero to create other robotic toys based on Disney characters like R2-D2, but interest in those products eventually waned, leading Sphero to abandon those lines and focus on STEAM products again, leading to products like the Bolt, Specdrums, and the RVR, which have all become popular amongst educational institutions as a way to introduce kids to complex concepts like programming.
LittleBits has seen a similar arc in its STEAM-focused lines. Borrowing Lego’s approach to toys, the company is known for its electronic building blocks that connect to each other using magnets allowing kids to create complex gadgets and other fully-functional inventions without needing to know how to solder. Over the years littleBits introduced kits for building electronic synthesizers, added smartphone integration for advanced programming, let kids live out their Iron Man fantasies, and even introduced their own version of a DIY R2-D2.
Sphero’s acquisition of littleBits shows that there is, thankfully, still a huge market for educational toys (the official announcement estimates the education technology industry to be worth about $150 billion/£123 billion) and that kids aren’t completely lost to smartphone games like Fortnite. The deal also gives Sphero control of littleBits’ various patents that cover everything from robotics, to software, to the Internet of Things. There are no official new product announcements tied to this announcement just yet, so it remains to be seen if Sphero plans to continue the littleBits line, integrate the company’s technology with its latest products like RVR, or introduce something entirely different.
Unfortunately, as part of the acquisition, Ayah Bdeir, who started littleBits and who’s been a strong advocate for gender-neutral toys, will not be joining Sphero and has instead decided to move on “...to pursue her next adventure.” What that means for the littleBits line remains to be seen, but as a driving force for both open source and STEAM initiatives, her leaving to try something new isn’t necessarily a bad thing.