Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sphero BB-8 Unboxing and First Look Review

Is this the droid you've been looking for?

In keeping with Internet tradition, the first video on the new Watkins Robotics YouTube channel is an unboxing video which includes that other ubiquitous Internet staple, a cat.

The star of this product review and video is none other than the Sphero BB-8 Astromech Droid collectible from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The cat, however, is not the star and appears only as a product demonstrator.

There are many consumer versions of the BB-8 in existence. At least one version is inflatable which seems appropriate since BB-8 has been referred to as "the beach ball" of astromech droids. For me, the Sphero version is the most interesting and arguably the most solidly built. It is, however, probably the smallest; coming in at roughly four and a half inches in height.

The Hasbro model, while larger, has a more "toy like" feel to it. Meanwhile, the Sphero appears to be the more "high tech" option.

One thing, however, that the Hasbro model has over the Sphero is that it comes with a dedicated remote control which is a welcome addition compared to the Sphero's requirement that a smart phone application act as the remote control.

While leveraging cellphone technology does allow for automatic updates and future expansion of the BB-8 feature set, it seems that a collectible droid model of this quality should really be more self-contained. Cellphones are upgraded often and it seems that the usability of the Sphero should not rely on the type of cellphone a person owns...or whether they own a cellphone at all.

Another compromise with the Sphero model is that the sounds made by BB-8 come from the cellphone application rather than from the droid itself. Since the user will always have the cellphone in hand (or at least nearby), this little shortcoming doesn't end up being as noticeable as one might initially believe.

The Hasbro model generates its sound from within the BB-8 which tends to produce a more realistic experience. This might be more important if the BB-8 is purchased as entertainment for children. Under this scenario, there will often be a parent or another child controlling the BB-8 and having the sounds come from the model, itself, will seem more immersive to the users.

In any case, the Sphero model is the choice for me. The construction is solid, the movement is precise, and the programmers have captured the personality and spirit of the character from the movie. This unit is solid enough to bang into walls and even drop from heights without causing too much grief.

And, yes, it has been known to bounce down a few stairs without much concern. Normally, if BB-8 drops down some stairs or otherwise experiences a hard crash, it usually first loses its head and this lightweight piece lands safely off to the side. This leaves the very solid billiard ball of a body to bounce and tumble as much as the laws of physics may compel.

By Constant314 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Another neat feature which should be mentioned is that the Sphero BB-8 uses a wireless charging technique involving the use of a pair of inductive coils; one inside the charging base and one inside the BB-8 itself. These coils act much like a typical electrical transformer which also conducts energy via alternating electromagnetic fields. I really appreciate the inclusion of such technology into this intriguing little device.

The original Sphero "robot ball" was something I had been watching ever since its inception. It was the first commercially available "robot" to use a locomotion technique about which I had been pondering for a quite a while.

It just seemed to make a lot of sense that a robot without wheels would be able to navigate some terrains much more easily than a robot with traditional wheels or rollers. And, of course, creating a robot with actual legs is still quite a challenge.

By Nepenthes (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
I'd often wondered just how R2-D2 could have managed to travel through the sand and rocks of Tatooine on those stiff little legs with their embedded rollers. Roller skates do not move well on the beach. A beach ball on the other hand is made for the beach and can easily roll across the sand. To me, the whole idea of a beach ball shaped droid rolling through the desert just seemed brilliant.

I had been interested in getting one of the original Spheros but it was not until this version that I decided to make a purchase. This is not simply because it is a wonderful Star Wars based collectible. Rather, the inclusion of something reminiscent of a face somehow gives it a little more life and makes it infinitely more interesting than what otherwise would resemble a common billiard ball. There's probably some well established psychological theory standing behind this feeling.

I hope you get a chance to check out the BB-8 Unboxing and First Look video on YouTube. Please feel free to share it with friends and remember to subscribe for updates on future content.

Thank you for visiting The Watkins Robotics Blog. Keep coming back!

--Watkins Robotics

Sphero BB-8 -
WatkinsRobotics YouTube Channel -

Monday, December 28, 2015

New YouTube and Twitter Profile Artwork!

Thought I'd drop a quick note about the new Watkins Robotics YouTube and Twitter Artwork that has just been created and uploaded. See the section below titled "A Word about the Channel Art" for information on how these images were generated.

In a previous blog, I mentioned the establishment of a new YouTube Channel and a brand new Twitter account. These were created to augment this newly reborn blog and allow the Robotics, Electronics, and Technology information to be focused into a communications stream all to itself. 

The decision was made to create these new accounts as a result of research spawned by discussions with friends and colleagues. It seems rather universal that when people follow Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, and blogs, this is usually done because the viewers are drawn to a specific topic or series of posts. While it can be refreshing to see posts that are not specifically related to the original items of interest, this can sometimes serve to distract the intended audience. 

My original YouTube Channel and Twitter accounts still exist but those will be used primarily to share information which is more general in nature (see bottom of article for links). Those channels are where you will find what might be considered a more personal or "behind the scenes" look at my life and other areas of interest. Check out those data streams to see what else is happening in my world. 

From this point forward, all Robotics, Electronics, and Technology projects, reviews, tutorials, and opinion pieces will be concentrated on the brand new "Watkins Robotics" accounts. The Twitter account has been active for a while now and the content has been growing. Follow me on Twitter for updates regarding new blog posts and YouTube videos!

The YouTube account is brand new however, and as of this writing there have been no videos uploaded. No need to be concerned though because production is currently in progress on a series of basic tutorials. A sizable list of new ideas for videos and blogs has also been constructed. So stay tuned! 

A Word about the Channel Art...

Sony Movie Studio 13 (Platinum Edition) was used to generate the channel art for these new accounts. The work began with a visit to the Google/YouTube Support pages for some research regarding proper image sizes and the "safe area" dimensions recommended therein. It is good to keep in mind that the image you upload to YouTube (and Google+) will be altered when users view your profile on different devices. 

The recommended size for YouTube Channel Art is 2560x1440 pixels. The better part of this will not be seen by many viewers and, because of this, you will want to have your most important information within the center of the picture. There is a "safe area" in the middle of your drawing which YouTube will always ensure is visible across all end-user devices. This zone is in the exact center of the image and its size is 1546x423 pixels. Please visit the Quick Spec Sheet on the YouTube help site for more detailed information. 

Also note that the recommended size for a YouTube profile picture is 800x800 pixels. You will have to update that image via your Google+ profile page and there will be a delay before you see this reflected on your YouTube profile. Keep in mind that your profile picture will remain rectangular on YouTube but will become a circle centered on the midpoint of your uploaded image when it is displayed alongside of your Google+ activity.

The process to create these images next met with a visit to to search for "free to use for personal and commercial" images released under Creative Commons CC0. The highest quality version of the desired background image was downloaded and imported into Sony Movie Studio. This image served as the bottom layer upon which was placed the channel name and tagline text.

A few custom video aspect ratio templates were constructed to assist with creating the artwork using the recommended dimensions. Respect was also maintained for that all-important "safe area" at the center of the screen. The custom aspect ratios were 2560x1440 for the background image, 1546x423 for the safe area, and 800x800 for the profile picture.

The 1546x423 pixel aspect ratio was chosen first and was used to create the area of graphics that seemed most important. It is here that the channel name and the tagline text were placed. It took some careful experimentation to find the font and text effects that produced a look that aligned with the design goals. Once the safe zone had been created, the aspect ratio was changed to the 2560x1440 setting to allow construction of the full-sized channel art image. Sony Movie Studio allows you to save a screenshot of a video frame. This is how the final channel art image was produced. Make sure the video preview window is set to "Full/Auto" and click the the save icon. That's all there is to it!

Likewise, in order to manufacture the profile icon, the video aspect ratio template was simply switched to the custom 800x800 pixel setting, the save icon was clicked, and viola! A properly sized profile icon was born. 

Lastly, the Twitter profile editor openly allowed the unobstructed uploading of the unaltered image files that were created for YouTube. After uploading, the profile editor will display a prompt allowing the user to scale the image. This feature was used to allow the channel name text to be larger than it may have appeared otherwise (see the image at the top of this article). 

A considerable amount of effort went into figuring out how to configure Sony Movie Studio so that it would properly produce artwork using the dimensions required for the this task. A video tutorial showing others how this can be accomplished is under serious consideration. Please comment below if you would like to see this come to fruition.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day and keep coming back!

Thank you,
Watkins Robotics


Watkins Robotics Twitter -

Donald Watkins YouTube -
Donald Watkins Twitter -
Donald Watkins Instagram -

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Watkins Robotics!

Just wanted to wish everyone the best for this Holiday Season and may the next year bring you joy.

This year marks a return to active blogging at Watkins Robotics. It has been far too long since I've contributed to this community in any direct way. In the coming year, I plan to produce a series of tutorials on YouTube. Meanwhile, this website will serve to capture associated text descriptions, detailed instructions, links to resources, and behind-the-scenes thoughts on each and every tutorial and project throughout the year!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Basic Stamp BOE Based Robotics Platform

This is an older autonomous robotics platform that I was experimenting with more than a few years ago. Some people may recognize it as being based on the Parallax BOE-BOT or "Board of Education" robot. That observation will prove correct. The BOE-BOT can be a wonderful platform on which to turn your ideas into real-life robotics experiments.

I thought it would be fun to dig up some of the old photos and videos of this project so that I could document the experiment and share it with others.

Starting with the Parallax "Board of Education" (BOE) development board, I learned to integrate the Basic Stamp microcontroller with various sensors and servos. Once I felt comfortable working with these devices, I purchased the standard Parallax BOE-BOT chassis and supporting hardware. To this I added a sonar module to measure distance toward obstacles, a standard servo to rotate the sonar module, two continuous rotation servos to be used for locomotion, a digital compass, an accelerometer, a piezo speaker, and Parallax Inc's LCD AppMod module w/ integrated buttons, and a nice set of tank tracks.

Later, a Parallax PING))) Sensor was added and allowed the use of sonar for distance and ranging measurements. The PING))) Sensor can be identified by the fact that it resembles a set of "robot eyes" not unlike the classic "Johnny Five" from the movie "Short Circuit". I guess it also somewhat resembles the eyes of the more recently famous "Wall-E" robot. Either way, it is not there for decorative purposes. The module is actually extremely useful for navigating a room.

Take a look at the video on the left to watch the sonar sensor sweeping across its forward field of view to determine the distance to nearby objects.

In the past, I have experimented with Infrared (IR) sensors and have had much success. In fact, I still use them today. However, like many things, IR sensors have their shortcomings where ambient light and surface reflectivity are concerned and this lead me to decide on using sonar for this particular project. There are ways to mitigate the problems with IR but I've found that using ultrasonic emitters and detectors is a better solution for most applications. Others may find the opposite to be true. As is often said, "Your mileage may vary."

In the photo on the right, you can see a handy user interface module which provides a liquid crystal display (LCD) and four tactile push-buttons. This was one of the later additions which greatly enhanced the debug/testing process as well as made the robot much more user friendly for public demonstrations.
The entire platform runs on just four AA sized batteries. While the small continuous rotation servos are not the most powerful motors nor are they the fastest option for locomotion, they more than sufficed for enabling this robot to explore indoor areas including those with carpeting and uneven surfaces.

I was not able to dig up the Basic Stamp PBASIC source code that I used for this project in time for this post. However, I do plan to resurrect the robot and that source code will be very handy to have around. Therefore, I will be locating and posting that code in the future. Considering all of the things that I had been trying to accomplish with this platform, I found that the memory space of the Basic Stamp was too limited to continue adding features and behaviors. In fact, the accelerometer was only able to be used when I removed other features. Similar limitations presented themselves when using the digital compass. Earlier, I had a goal of upgrading to the Parallax Propeller microcontroller with it's greater memory reserves and its ability to multitask using the eight internal processing cores. It seems, however, that I was easily distracted by other projects and other processors. It's all fun and I learn from each and every "distraction".

Below are three admittedly grainy videos which show the Watkins BOE-BOT navigating a living room environment. The robot was not programmed with a specific goal in mind other than random exploration. It safely roams the given space without running into objects such as walls, doors, people, and pets. Take a look at the videos to see the robot doing what it does best. Please forgive the low image quality as it was the best I could do at the time using what would now be considered an "ancient" cell phone.

Short video of the first object avoidance test.

Navigating a corner.

Robot being watched by another creature.

Thank you for visiting the site and checking out this small yet fully autonomous robot. Below is a partial parts list with links to sources. The list does not represent the exact kits or combinations of items originally purchased but you can recreate most of this project using the links below (with the exception of the LCD AppMod which appears to have been discontinued). 

Check back for source code and further updates!

Parts List with Source Links
Board of Education (BOE) -
Continuous Rotation Servos -
PING))) Sensor/Bracket/Servo Kit -

BOE-BOT Starter Kit
Another option is to start with the full BOE-BOT Kit from Parallax. This may be a good starting point for a beginner if this is your first robot.

Potential Upgrades

Build something! You can do it!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Quick Build Mood Lamp with Remote Control

While not a robot this nifty project employs the kind of components and resourcefulness that can be very useful when converting your own ideas into reality.  

Why build a remote controlled, tabletop, mood lamp that can produce over 16 million vibrant colors?
Why not?

It might be the ideal conversation piece for that table that needs just one more decoration.

The lamp was assembled from a ceiling mounted lighting fixture, a 9 volt battery, and just two electronic components from ThingM's BlinkM line of products.

It consists of a single BlinkM RGB module slotted onto the top socket of a FreeM device. These mated modules are then placed on top of a 9 volt battery which supplies power.

The FreeM conveniently includes a 9 volt battery connector built into the bottom of the board and this makes the electrical work quite easy. The BlinkM, FreeM, and the battery all fit snugly together without requiring any soldering.

As often happens with scientific experiments, art projects, and other sorts of creative endeavors, a very delightful feature arose quite unexpectedly. These welcome surprises are often called "emergent properties" and tend to result more from the inherent properties of the particular materials chosen for the implementation than from anything described in the original design.

For instance, the image to the right shows the lamp set to produce a solid "blueish" output. The expected outcome was to light the globe one specific color. However, the result was a wonderfully natural blending of blue and green that combined to generate something which strongly resembles a gas planet.

The magic that makes this happen arises due to the combined properties of the translucent glass globe and the design of the BlinkM. The globe has inherent imperfections which go largely unnoticed when used for its intended purpose attached to the ceiling of a closet or hallway. Meanwhile, the BlinkM uses three very tiny LEDs arranged in a triangular fashion.

Because these individual LEDs are slightly offset from one another, they generate slightly offset brightness curves. These offset light curves combine with the imperfections in the diffusing layer of the glass and produce the beautifully organic designs.

The BlinkM generates 24 bit color at a reasonably bright 8,000 mcd while the FreeM acts as both a voltage regulator and an IR receiver. Lighting effects can be controlled by using nearly any "Sony-style" TV remote control. The BlinkM houses and on-board micro-controller and ships with a default set of operating modes which can be activated via the number keys on the remote control unit. Brightness can be controlled using the volume keys. The scripts which define the operating modes can be altered by an end user who has a basic familiarity working with micro-controllers  The module can also accept "live" serial commands via its I2C pins (more on that in a future post).

Everything is tucked away inside of a standard, ceiling mounted, lighting fixture that has had its 120 volt parts replaced with the BlinkM/FreeM/battery combo and then turned upside down so it sits as a tabletop globe. Enjoy!

See the product line's datasheet for more information about the components:

I purchased my BlinkM components from

Thank you for visiting.

Build something! You can do it!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Simple Arduino Robotics Platform

An inexpensive remote controlled toy vehicle, a handful of well supported electronics, and an afternoon of fun can result in you having built your own expandable Arduino based robotics platform for less than $80.  While this project describes a "sensor-less" platform it offers a great base on which to stage future experiments. A variety of sensors, servos and other types of actuators can easily be added to this roving chassis and integrated into the Arduino based software to expand and enhance your autonomous robot's capabilities.

This simple robotics platform was built from a radio controlled vehicle that can be purchased online for about $20 or less (check your favorite toy shops). The electronics added at this stage include an Arduino UNO and a top mounted DFRobot L298P Motor Shield. These items should cost around $30 for the Arduino and under $20 for the motor shield.  Both of these components, their datasheets, tutorials and sample code are available from a variety of online sources including Adafruit, Digi-key, and SparkFun.

The process began with the slow deconstruction of the toy vehicle and the careful saving of all the screws, springs, and tiny structural pieces. It was soon found that this little vehicle employs just two small, low current, electric motors. One motor is used for driving the rear wheels and the other is used for steering the front end. Having just two motors is fortunate because the particular Arduino shield being used has the capacity to control precisely two motors of this type.

Also fortunate for this project, a single, small circuit board housing the original radio receiver and all of the motor control electronics was discovered. Conversion of this simple radio controlled toy vehicle into a programmable robotics platform could therefore be accomplished by simply removing this existing circuit board and replacing it with an Arduino and an attached motor shield.

Once the existing controller board was located and removed, it was replaced with a sturdy wiring harness that was designed to bring the motor control lines and battery power to the outside of the vehicle. The harness was then connected to a terminal block that had been secured to a central location on the top of the vehicle's body using double-sided tape. A second set of wires was then routed from the terminal block to the rear of the toy vehicle where it was connected directly to the Arduino and the motor shield. Being that this toy vehicle mimics the body style of a classic all-terrain utility vehicle, it has a convenient "bed" area at the rear which offers a perfect place to secure the Arduino and its attached motor shield.

Initially, there was no intention to preserve the vehicle's outer body or existing LED lighting. However, because the toy was easily disassembled, saving these pieces became an option. There are LED headlights on the front of the vehicle as well as very bright overhead spotlights on the roll bar. At this time, all of these LED's are connected in series to pin 13 of the Arduino. Simple digitalWrite() instructions in the Arduino code allow for versatile control of these surprisingly bright LED's. In the future, the overhead spotlights and the front headlights may be given their own separate control lines so they can be used independently. There are also red LED's that serve as backup lights but those are not connected at this time.

Conveniently, the toy vehicle also contains a battery compartment that holds five AA batteries. This 7.5 volt battery pack supplies plenty of current to the motors while also providing power to the platform's electronics payload. There is even a small slide switch on this built-in battery box that helps to give the entire package a more professional look and feel. While very handy at this stage of development, future experiments may test the limits this single source power supply.

This robotics platform will evolve over time and is intended to grow in complexity. My parts collection contains a good variety of sensors that have gone unused for far too long and many of those devices will be incorporated into this platform as time permits.

The software currently loops through a familiar design pattern which can be described as "scan/plan/animate".  At this time, the data gathered during the "scan" phase is actually simulated by generating random values for the sensor readings.  This allows the "plan" and "animate" phases to be developed in the absence of real sensors.  As can be expected, the resulting behavior can be rather chaotic but it certainly provides for a lively demonstration!

In future posts I will be adding a set of ultrasonic and infrared distance rangers that will be used to sense the environment and provide the feedback required to support autonomous and intelligent behavior.

Reproducing this project can be a great way to get started on your own autonomous rover designs. Follow the links below for hardware resources, the Arduino IDE, and the source code used in this project.

Arduino IDE from

Arduino UNO R3
DFRobot L298P Motor Shield
RC Safari Vehicles

Please feel free to post comments, questions, suggestions and concerns in the space provided.

Thanks for visiting!

Build something! You can do it!