Sphero VP Carly Gloge Breathes Life Into Star Wars Droid-Toys

“This is what I want to do when I grow up!”

Carly Gloge does what some Star Wars fans may dream about: she makes the franchise’s beloved droids come to life—at least in a tiny robotic toy form.

The Calgary-born programmer made a name for herself in Boulder, Colorado where she started her tech-toy career, making mobile games for kids. Although Gloge was trained as a designer, she discovered her passion for data science as an entrepreneur when she co-founded Ubooly, app-enabled toy company in 2012.

At Ubooly, Gloge combined technology and toys to turn stuffed animals into smart toy companions for kids. The business earned CEO Gloge and her co-founder husband a spot on Forbes “30 under 30” entrepreneurs a spot on Inc Magazine’s “10 Women to Watch in Tech” in 2014.

Ubooly was acquired by Sphero in 2016 and both Gloge and her husband stayed with the company. Sphero is a connected toy company that fuses physical robotic toys with digital technology to create immersive and fun experiences. Today, Gloge serves as Sphero’s vice president of product, which includes managing the company’s Star Wars product line. If that wasn’t enough, she is also currently pursuing her Master’s degree in software engineering at Harvard University.

Disney hired Sphero to harness their robotic ball technology to create a BB-8 toy that isn’t just inspired by the movies but embraces the character’s personality and quirks. And today, Sphero unveiled two new droids: the Rebel Alliance’s R2D2 and First Order’s BB-9E. Like the BB-8, the app-enabled bots respond to voice commands and cues.

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As the smart droids roll around a home, they can easily see things in their path with a collision detection feature. The toys are controlled using native mobile apps, and as expected, each droid comes with a unique set of features that capture the bot’s big screen essence.

Your first foray into the toy world was with Ubooly. What sparked the idea to merge traditional toys with technology?

My husband and I were actually working on mobile games at the time. Believe it or not, this was at a time where adults didn’t feel kids really would use mobile devices a whole lot.

But we were starting to see it pick up. We worked on a very early port of Minecraft, and once we moved it to mobile we started seeing all these kids playing with it. We saw that already happening, and then we said, “Okay, what if we were to take all the smarts from the mobile game industry, and put it in toys in a much more friendly way?”

How does having an entrepreneurial mindset shake up the toy space?

Entrepreneurs have to be a little crazy. Toys have been around for a really long time. There are certain rules on how you make toys traditionally, and it’s definitely evolved. By having a software driven approach, I think that it’s allowed us to look at toys in a very different way than what a classic toy maker might think is the right approach.

I personally really like working with small teams, being really scrappy; getting every discipline involved. A toy usually starts with marketing, and then it moves to design, and then you’ll get your engineers involved. Whereas my role in Sphero (and historically), the whole team collaborates from the very beginning. I think that’s a lot more tech-centric, or small startup-centric than what’s normal for this industry.

We hear about the negative effects too much screen time has on a child’s development. How are smartphone-enabled toys different than a screen game?

When it’s in the physical realm, kids are getting up, they’re moving, and they’re collaborating instead of just being heads down and staring at a screen.

One thing that really attracted me to joining Sphero was wanting kids to be creative, instead of consumers. We have play tests at our office all the time. I’ve heard from multiple kids when they come in, they say, “This is what I want to do when I grow up!”

Traditionally, we saw a lot of boys get into programming because they’d play video games. But we’re seeing with our robots—especially once they have that great character—a lot of girls get attracted to it, and they also want to be roboticists or computer programmers.

Sphero was first approached to collaborate on the Star Wars line while completing the Disney Accelerator. Can you tell me about that journey?

At the time I was still working for Ubooly, but my company and Sphero were both going through the Disney Accelerator. On day two, there was Mentor Madness, where you met with all these different higher ups at Disney. I watched the Sphero founders and CEO go into the room to meet Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney.

Bob Iger actually had this exclusive footage on his phone. He had the robot footage, and said: “You can’t tell anyone about this. But this is the new robot that’s coming out in the new film. You guys should make this.”

They came out with this massive grin on their faces, and they’re like, “This is going to be huge, but we can’t talk about it.” Then I could see them over in this corner with this little prototype, and it looked like they were trying to put a little hat on their original Sphero ball. I was like, “What is that all about? I wonder if it has something to do with Star Wars.”

It turns out that Bob Iger actually had this exclusive footage on his phone. He had the robot footage and said: “You can’t tell anyone about this. But this is the new robot that’s coming out in the new film. You guys should make this.”

And it all started from there. They had a little over a year to get all of those details right.

In terms of the Star Wars droids—specifically the BB-8 and BB-9E— how do you build personality into a plastic ball?

Star Wars is really hardcore about making sure that something that was released 40 years ago, still fits in the universe today. It seemed like a really fun challenge and really making those great robot characters come to life. I really think that Star Wars robots are the most beloved.

What some people don’t realize is that on that set of The Force Awakens, they didn’t have a robot that could actually do all the moments; they had multiple BB-8’s. For us to translate that into one robot that could work in your living room was really hard.

The team developed a tool called “robot animator” which has helped us quite a bit with adding thread personalities. We actually import the computer aided design file for the physical model and add all the limitations on what the motors can do. Then an animator will animate it in that program, and they’ll look frame by frame at the film to try to match it up. Then that all gets downloaded back onto the robot. That’s really the key secret sauce tool at Sphero to add personalities to all our robots.

Some modern technology lacks a personality. But we see technology becoming more and more human with the rise of AI-enabled assistants. We’ve even heard about robots becoming companions. What’s the opportunity there?

In my past, I saw some kids really come out of their shell having a robot friend or a cute little plushie friend. I think there’s a real opportunity for adding that level of companionship, especially in scenarios where there might be a little bit of a struggle. With our previous products, we actually had a lot of kids with autism who were struggling socially in school, play with our products and it helped them really open up.

Ubooly was an opportunity for them to talk to a toy, and get a response back with no level of judgment. A lot of parents said that was wonderful, to hear their kid practicing speech again, rather than feeling ashamed about it. It created a safe environment for them to practice their social skills.

While Sphero’s not focused on it right now, I think there are also opportunities with elderly, and giving a companion at home.

Character-based toys are historically made and packaged for girls or for boys, with different functions and features that appeal to each group. Is that something that you think about when you’re designing toys with AI?

I personally try not to. We’ve actually been exploring this really hard. I really don’t like the idea of a boys toy or a girls toy. We have plenty of girls that play with BB-8. It still skews slightly more boy, but not dramatically.

I think that one thing that’s helping is that really cute, small, tiny, little adorable personality is starting to appeal to more of that girl fan base. Sphero doesn’t call any of our products girl or boy toys, they don’t sit in the girl or boy aisle, and I’m hoping that it stays that way. I don’t think that there’s anything about a robot that makes it inherently girl or boy.

There was a period of time as a kid where I liked playing with “boys toys,” and I remember asking myself as a kid, “Is there something wrong with me that I like Micro-Machines?” To put those labels on toys, I think has some unfortunate consequences for kids.

It wasn’t until I got into my third year of college that I took my first computer science course and I was like, What have I been waiting for?

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Do you think droids could be a gateway for young girls interested in robotics?

I interviewed a lot of teachers that have brought Sphero products into the classroom, and they said the level of engagement for boys and girls when they bring a robot into the classroom is just through the roof.

At face value, until they really start, programming seems boring; it’s so abstract. When you actually see how you can change the way a robot moves, and that they can give them their own personality, I think that is a really, really nice opportunity.

It starts really simple. It can be learning to program the color of the lights on a robot. That’s the first hook. Then they realize, “I can make it do a figure eight.” Then taking a step further, a step further. I think that it has to start really young.

I could tell you that I had multiple times all the way from elementary school to high school where I was like, “Computer science isn’t for me. I am creative. That seems hard and intimidating.” It wasn’t until I got into my third year of college that I took my first computer science course and I was like, “What have I been waiting for?” I felt like a total born-again programmer, and I’m still learning to this day.

I certainly have regrets that there wasn’t someone that said, “Hey, this actually is for you. You don’t realize it yet, but you’re going to love this.” I think that’s just what has to happen. We have to change the image of the proto-typical programmer in schools. I think that girls are opting out early when they really haven’t even given it a shot yet.

Sphero’s behind this initiative to get kids involved with coding and programming their own robots. Will we be seeing more educational products coming out of Sphero?

It’s a brand that we are really excited about, and we’re seeing a lot of rapid growth. Even with the new Star Wars launch, there will be Swift Playground integration with the new R2D2 Droid.

Swift Playground is a new coding app released by Apple that allows kids to really see behind the scenes of how a programmer or game works. They’ve already released, with our education app, some of those classic games like a version of Pac-Man or Bop-It, where you get to play the game, but you also get to manipulate the code to get the game to work in the background. It’s a fun way to expose kids to early programming.

Do you think there is enough innovation happening in the toy space?

I’ve seen some really neat things, I would always love to see more. One of the things that we’re working really hard on is seeing what can we do to get our price points down. The kind of technology we add to our toys, there’s a level of cost associated with it. I’m hoping to see that happen. I would love to see a lot more that appeals to girls out there and appeals to creativity. I think that I’m seeing really great strides, but I’d love to see even more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.