Sparky Jr. - DIY Telepresence Robot




Introduction: Sparky Jr. - DIY Telepresence Robot

About: The Future Sports Academy is a San Francsico-based STEM education wonderland. Our community initiative offers ongoing educational programs, workshops and after school leagues focused on engineering, design, co…
"You might call Sparky a state-of-the-art schmooze machine" - Wired Magazine

SPARKY: The name Sparky is based on an acronym for Self Portrait Artifact / Roving Chassis - an art project started in the early 90's using trash, found objects and discarded technology. Sparky Jr. can also be made with a wide range of found or scrounged hardware and components, but this one was created with a mix of new and existing materials

All together, this assemblage of hardware becomes a unique machine - Sparky Jr. - a wireless rover capable of face-to-face video chat over the Internet.

Join the growing community of DIY telepresence makers

Step 1: Here Is a List of the Basic Hardware Used to Build Sparky Jr.

For the Robot Chassis
Mac Mini computer
Lilliput 7 VGA car-puter monitor
iRobot Create robot chassis
Keyspan serial to USB adapter
Logitech USB desktop microphone
Creative Labs Ultra webcam VF0060
USB powered speakers
12 v. 7Ah hobby battery
12 v battery charger
100 watt inverter
Cigarette lighter female socket
Small hardware corner braces
Assorted small 10/32 nuts and bolts
Assorted Erector set parts
Thin plastic sheet
10/32 hardware

For the control computer:
Any web-enabled computer with Webcam
Chat headset
Logitech USB Game pad

Tools needed:
Hot glue and gun
Drill/driver and bits
Zip ties
Matt knife

2nd monitor (for setup)
Table saw/drill press
1/8 and 1/4  Acrylic plastic
small acrylic cubes
Acrylic solvent and applicator

Step 2: Part 1a: Computer Hardware Set-up

First set up Sparky's Mac and monitor as you normally would, as well as the webcam, speakers and mic. Also plug the iRobot Create into the Mac using the Keyspan serial/USB adapter. We will test this connection later while setting up the software.

Step 3: Part 1b: Control Computer Set-up

Control Computer Set-up: This should be straightforward. You can use any Macintosh with a Webcam that connects to the Internet and can handle video chat. It can be a desktop, laptop or netbook. I personally chose a Dell Mini 9 netbook with a hacked Mac OS installed. This computer will need a USB game pad and USB chat headset attached. Install Skype.

Step 4: Part 1c: Test Skype

Install Skype on both Macs and test that videochat is working. You may need to go into the preferences pane and make adjustments.

Step 5: Part 1d: Battery Test

Once the computer and Skype are working, shut everything down and plug the Mac and monitor into the 12v. battery using the cigarette lighter inverter. The 3-prong Mac plugs in directly and the monitor can use the included lighter adapter. Restart the Mac and test it again. Everything should work the same as before until the battery drains. You should get at least an hour or two on a full charge

Step 6: Part 2a: Joystick Controller Set-up

Currently, our controller software runs only on a Mac, but the next version will work on both Mac and PC, which will allow a wider range of hardware options.

If the text on your Sparky monitor is too difficult to read because you are using a small TV instead of a VGA monitor, you may want to use a second monitor for the software set-up. Once it is complete, you can switch back to Sparky's permanent monitor.

Step 7: Part 2b: Install the Keyspan Driver

Download and install the Keyspan Serial adapter driver onto Sparky's Mac. Follow the instructions provided by Keyspan.

Step 8: Part 2c: Install the Joystick Control Plugins

Download the Sparky Jr. Joystick installer. Put this on the computer that you use as the "control booth."

Download the Sparky Jr. iRobot Server installer . Put this one on the Mac Mini onboard Sparky.

These installers will place several files on your system as well as an icon on your desktop. I recommend putting the Skype and controller icons in the dock next to system preferences for easy access on both computers.

Step 9: Part 2d: Test the Control Software

Do the following steps in this exact order

1) Place the iRobot Create on a block, so the wheels can spin freely
2) Make sure all the hardware is connected on Sparky and control computer
3) Switch on the iRobot Create ON button
4) Turn on both computers
5) Start Skype on both computers and sign in. (each computer needs an account)
6) Start the Sparky controller on each computer and hit the connect button.
7) Make sure the messages in the Sparky controller window indicate a connection.
8) Be sure to click and highlight the Skype text chat window on Sparky.
9) Move the joystick forward once or twice.

The wheels should spin immediately, but it might take about a minutes lag for the first command to respond. Once it begins, there should be no lag between commands and response.

Step 10: Part 3: Structure and Outer Shell Intro

Sparky Jr. requires a minimum of structural parts to hold all the components. The outer shell is made from a single sheet of flexible plastic, which becomes rigid and strong enough to act as an exo-skeleton once assembled. Sparky's monitor and speakers are attached to this shell and are completely supported by it.

The other structural part required by Sparky Jr. is a small internal shelf to hold the Mac and other components in place. It can be made of many different materials, including wood, plastic, and metal - even Lego or Erector set parts will work. But I recommend building it using acrylic or Plexiglas. The results will be strong, lightweight and clean.

Both patterns are available for download at

Step 11: Part 3a: Inner Shelf (part 1)

Download the zip file containing the template for the shelf and print them out. Make sure you print at 100% (even if the printer warns of cropping the image). Measure the image to confirm the proper size.

If you are using wood or metal, construct the shelf your own way. If using acrylic, carefully trace the pattern onto the material and cut the pieces using a table saw with fine wood blade and drill press with plastic or fine wood bit.

1/4" thick material is ideal for the legs, but the top and feet are 1/8". If you had to choose a single thickness, go with the 1/4".

Step 12: Part 3a: Inner Shelf (part 2)

Lay the top piece on a flat surface, and align each of the leg pieces so that they are resting on top, flush along the side edge with the 3 holes lined up. Carefully run a single bead of acrylic solvent along the inside joint and let set for a few minutes.

Place each foot piece on the iRobot Create using the four small screw holes. Align the pieces so the wider edges are facing inward and forward. Keep the bolts loose so the foot pieces can be adjusted.

Place the table on the feet with the angled edge of the legs facing forward. Make adjustments to the feet so their edges line up flush with the legs. Carefully run a bead of solvent down each of these joints and let set.

*Optional. Remove the table from the iRobot Create and lay it face down again on a flat surface so the underside is exposed. Use solvent to carefully attach the small cubes to each leg/top joint to act as additional structural support.

Step 13: Part 3a: Inner Shelf (part 3)

Once the shelf is ready, mount it to the iRobot Create chassis using the four included 10/32 screws. Be sure to place angle brackets mounted in the rear holes under the foot of the shelf, as well as 2 washers in the front holes to maintain an even level. These brackets are used to mount the outer shell to the iRobot.

Step 14: Part 3b: Outer Shell (part 1)

The pattern for Sparky's outer shell can be downloaded at It is a life-size 2D drawing made in Google SketchUp. It measures 35 x 24 1/4" and can be printed using 15 sheets of paper.

Follow these steps to insure that the pattern prints at exactly 1:1 scale.

1) Download and install SketchUp for your computer.
2) Download and open the file called Sparky_outer_shell_01 from
3) Open the file and switch to paraline mode by turning perspective mode off. To turn perspective mode off, open the "Camera" menu and click "Perspective" (so that a check mark is not displayed next to it).
4) Select a standard scalable view: Top. To select a standard view, open the "Camera" menu, point to "Standard," and then click one of the views.
5 Resize the SketchUp window so the right and left edges of the drawing touch both side edges of the canvas exactly.
6) Open the "File" menu, and then click "Document Setup."
7) In the "Print Size" section of the "Print" dialog box, clear the "Fit to page" option.
8) If you are in paraline mode (step 1) and have selected a standard view (step 2), the scale options in the "Print Scale" section are enabled when you clear the "Fit to page" option. Set the scale to 1 to 1.
9) Click "OK" to save your document settings, and then print your model by opening the "File" menu, and then clicking "Print."
10) Assemble the pattern using clear tape, taking care to maintain proper alignment.

Step 15: Part 3b: Outer Shell (part 2)

The pattern was designed with the exact components from the hardware list above - If you are using any different parts, you will need to customize the pattern to fit them. Also, some of the attachment points between the iRobot and the plastic shell are hard to determine with accuracy - it helps to do it bit-by-bit. Assume the first attempt will be a bit of a mess by the time its all assembled, so its 3not a bad idea to have a few extra pieces of plastic handy.

Layout and tape together the printout of the pattern. Trace it to the material (or cut the paper pattern out and draw around it if you can't trace it) and cut the pattern out, including the holes for the monitor and speakers and webcam. Drill all the boltholes with a 10/32 drill bit or slightly larger.

Allow your cat to help as needed.

Step 16: Part 3b: Outer Shell Monitor Mount

Lay the monitor facedown on the plastic, align and hot-glue four small corner brackets to it. Be sure to orient the monitor so the connectors and jacks are on the top edge. Also line up the webcam and hot-glue it along the top edge of the monitor as well. Now you can confirm the alignment of the webcam and mounting holes. Cut and drill these holes and bolt the monitor/webcam to it with the hardware.

Step 17: Part 3b: Outer Shell Speaker Mount

Center the speakers over their holes and attach them by running a bead of hot-glue around the edge of each.

Step 18: Part 3b: Outer Shell Assembly 1

Now partially assemble the shell with the 10/32 hardware. Take care to layer the pieces in the proper order or else the holes won't line up properly. You will notice how the shape becomes structurally rigid with just a few bolts added.

Step 19: Part 3b: Outer Shell Front Bumper Alignment

The two holes marked along the bottom front edge of the plastic correspond with two holes drilled through the front bumper of the iRobot Create. Using the holes on the plastic as a guide to mark the bumper, mark and drill the bumper holes.

*Notice how the front bumper of the iRobot Create still has full range of motion even with the outer shell attached. In fact, the shell is acting like a bumper spring, keeping it in the out position and helping it spring back when bumped. If yours is not working, check the alignment of the attachment points and make adjustments as needed.

Step 20: Part 3b: Outer Shell Final Bracket Alignment

With the two bumper holes done, and the front edge of the plastic attached to the iRobot Create, check the alignment of the remaining four angle bracket points (one sits on each side of the bumper, and one more sits on each side of the main chassis). Ideally these brackets are aligned so that they have one edge and screw hole flush with the plastic shell. You will need to hot-glue these to the chassis, but take care that they don't shift in the process.

Step 21: Conclusion

For more info and plans, Join Sparky Jr.

The site is dedicated to DIY, open source mobile telepresence.

Get free software and instructions, plus how-to videos, hardware links and more connecting you the growing community of mobile telepresence and videochat drone builders. Post your own projects and get feedback from other members.

And best of all, its FREE!

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    11 years ago on Introduction

    The no longer working!!


    Reply 13 years ago on Step 1

    It's not exactly cheap if you go and buy everything off-the-shelf, but many of these parts are likely in the back of your closet or junk drawer.  However, at any price, it has better functionality that robots costing $10,000 and up!

    Check out for more details.


    13 years ago on Introduction

    Wow this is really awesome, super detailed too !