Our interview with Sphero CCO Rob Maigret

Rob Maigret is an entertainment technologist and executive mentor who currently holds the position of Chief Creative Officer at Sphero, the leaders in Connected Play. Prior to Sphero, he was SVP of Global Creative at Disney Interactive, the digital entertainment and games segment of The Walt Disney Company. While at Disney, he also started Disney Interactive Labs, which are currently responsible for harnessing emerging technologies to develop products aimed at enhancing Disney’s online and mobile experiences – including the freshly-relaunched Disney.com.

Sphero CCO Rob Maigret
Sphero CCO Rob Maigret

Rob entered the Disney ranks through the acquisition of DigiSynd in 2008, a company that he co-founded and was the president and CTO of.

1) With the rise of Sphero rapidly growing, how far can robotics go in the coming years?

The promise that artificial intelligence will aid in human evolution has been the dream of many throughout history. Great science fiction creators of yesteryear knew that at some point our technical prowess would take us to new levels of robotic innovation: Asimov, Fritz Lang — Hanna Barbera. They all saw the age we are entering before many of us were born.
Sphero believes we are closing the gap on that promised future with the present. As a society, we have primarily focused on robotics for utility, and that is where most of the progress has been made. Think about it, we already live in a world of robots. That said, we’ve been slow to develop the technology necessary for true robotic friends – such as natural contextual language and methods to generate more human-like cognitive reactions. These advancements are now getting closer, and a driving force is entertainment and companionship.

2) Recently in the wake of Star Wars the new model BB-8 was released which has made millions of people’s dreams come true, a droid in the household. Is the hype of the product covering up the issues such as battery use only being an hour and it taking hours to charge? And will battery issues be a problem of the past soon?

There will always be challenges. Until Wireless Power Transfer (WPT) is built out, or some form portable organic energy exists, batteries are still a requirement – and thus – an issue. But again, look at the progress in something like electric cars. Today we don’t have 100% electric automobiles not because we don’t have the ability to do it, it’s more of a cultural challenge. We, as a culture, need time to let things slowly evolve and change. Disruption can be quite chaotic. We’ll need to slowly introduce new ideas into what a home robot truly is. Small steps.
Robots who are aware of their limitations and are able to charge themselves will come quickly. Self-awareness has many forms, and this will be one. The technology already exists. We know how to write software that is focused on maximum power conservation. Various implementations exist in laptop computers, for example.
Advance that tech a few years and imagine systems that shut down unnecessary services as you’re not using them and fires them back up when you are. I bet Apple already has this for OSX ready to go.

3) With the beauty of the regular Sphero product, how far do you believe the company has come in making household products looking beautiful and moving without a hitch?

For us, we’re not trying to create a better organic. Meaning: Sphero doesn’t make robotic pets. BB-8 is a droid. Sphero is a ball. Ollie is a super fast cylinder wrapped around an electric motor. Form factors set expectations. The minute you make it look like a cat, it better be as good as a real one. We don’t have that ability yet. I’d much rather have a real dog, cat, or say — butler – than a robotic one. Organics are better. And yes, organics are not perfect, but regardless, the technology to make one is still beyond our reach.
If you set the expectation right, for example – a ball – and it’s better than what we understand a ball to be – you over deliver. The key to providing someone a great customer experience is consistently over delivering their expectations. So when you make a robotic butler, for example, and it can’t actually make you a drink, answer your door, iron your shirt, remember all your personal preferences, or in the case of Bruce Wayne – help you fight crime, you’ve failed your customer.

4) How far off do you believe are we from having these robots doing daily jobs such as washing up, cleaning, and etc?

We’re tactically probably there. But I don’t think people are ready for that yet. A lifeless robot with no personality or connection as we understand it – I personally don’t trust or want them doing something like brushing my teeth. Washing up is a very intimate thing. It’s extremely personal and only those closest to use typically do that for us. I want to know someone before I let them get that close to me. That’s the misconception, that we can create these devices that do all of these things and we will just let them do it. It’ll be weird, cold, and like a stranger giving you a bath, cleaning your clothes, in your personal space. You need to know someone first. And, you have to like them. Feel connected. You know – a relationship.

5) How did the partnership with Disney strengthened both parties?

Well, I can’t speak for Disney, but I would assume that Disney started their accelerator program to help the world innovate. Disney, as a company, has been on the cutting edge of innovation since it started. Inventions like the multiplane camera, animatronics, etc. Disney’s chairman, Bob Iger, is probably one of the most innovative leaders in history. Guys like Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Kevin Mayer, Bob Gurr – these incredibly smart people that have been a part of the company and created a catalyst for new ideas and possibilities. I see Disney fostering that methodology in the world. Helping to create a better and more advanced world.
For Sphero, it added new disciplines to our arsenal. First off, we had never worked with another company’s intellectual property. Disney and Lucas are two of the most well respected and regarded franchise owners, when you work with them you must adapt quickly to having another entity sitting at the table. For us, it meant we had to work closely with a partner who had very strong opinions and experience on how best to build products in their namesake. As an ex-Disney executive, I had the fortune of being on the other side of this relationship and could do my best to help guide us through this process. At the same time, we had other folks on our side who had worked on behalf of licensees before, and they really knew how to foster and nurture the relationship.
Secondly we had to bring something, that customers had already seen, to life. Star Wars fans had already seen BB-8 in the trailers. They’d possibly seen the Pinewood team’s version of the life-sized BB-8 on stage at the Star Wars Celebration. We had to be sure to provide an experience consistent with those amazing moments. It had to be as perfect and as precious as what had been established. It had to show BB-8’s personality. His playfulness, his lifeforce, his essence.
Our design team was able to do this by creating movements and reactions in animation and then “sending” those to the early prototypes for execution. It was a very smart and new way to work. It definitely changed the way we thought about robotic personality. It helped us realize what a robot should be.
All in all, we’ve got an amazing group of folks in all disciplines and we used a new technique of working together this time around. We focused on breaking down the lines between core teams and running the whole thing from a singular creative source. Allowing folks on marketing teams for example, who typically start at the end of the process, to kick it off and help define the process. When you follow one vision, everything gets easier.

6) A question many of our readers would like to know, what is it like in the Sphero office? Many believe it is the hub of the future with robots everywhere?

Well, the main office is in Boulder, CO. We also have a labs space in Boulder and a small office in Los Angeles. I’d say the consistent thing about all the offices is that we try to have a tasteful appreciation for beauty and design in all areas, not just robots. That being said, it’s not out of the ordinary to see some kind of new concoction passing by in the halls, a game of frisbee golf being played, or if you’re lucky – a life-sized droid coming out of the elevator.

We would like to thank Rob for taking the time to speak with us.


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