Sphero is a new toy that meshes the personality and maneuverability of a remote-controlled car with the simple form factor of an ordinary ball.
You control this colorful, robotic sphere using apps that run on your smartphone. Sphero holds promise, but it’s going to take some imagination and some app development to really get the most out of this innovation. It’s not quite the future of gaming. For now, it’s just the future of cat toys.
It’s not quite the future of gaming. For now, it’s just the future of cat toys.
Sphero’s been hotly anticipated since its debut before last holiday season. The robotic ball begins shipping Monday, so those who pre-ordered will get theirs in the mail this week. Unfortunately, due to production difficulties and high demand, many who ordered Sphero won’t see theirs delivered until January.
The translucent white, baseball-sized ball costs $130, and it can be controlled using free apps on either iOS or Android devices. It glows — an RGB LED array inside the robotic orb can display thousands of colors, just pick one. When the LED is on, the gears and electronics stay hidden. A simple gyroscope keeps the darkened half of the ball facing towards the ground, and the shadow of a fish’s tail appears at the “back,” so Sphero appears to be swimming wherever he’s going.
The apps controlling the toy communicate with it via Bluetooth. Right now, Sphero’s app offerings are slim — it launches with six different apps, all of them free. But the company has opened up its SDK to developers, so hopefully some innovative apps and hacks will show up soon.
The fundamental app (called “Sphero”) controls the ball using a joystick-like touchscreen controller. A small circle representing the Sphero sits inside a larger circle. Push the inner circle any direction, and the Sphero follows suit. The further from the center you push it, the faster Sphero rolls. There are three speeds: “cautious,” “comfortable” and “crazy,” which is about three feet per second. There are advanced controls, like a “boost” function and the option to control the ball by tilting your phone. The controls beyond the basic touchscreen joystick are difficult to master, so the more space you have to roll around in, the better.
Using the “Draw n’ Drive” app, you can also direct it by drawing a pattern onscreen, which it then traces on the floor. Sphero can even be controlled using a voice recognition feature, but I had very limited success with that.
The Sphero itself doesn’t house a camera, but the “Sphero Cam” app lets you shoot a video using your phone’s camera while you drive it. This is fun if you want to document a session playing with your cat or dog through photographs or video. My cat, Leeloo, is fat, and she lost interest once it started moving. Sphero’s large size compared to normal cat toys is also probably a bit intimidating.
There’s one attempt at traditional gaming, the “Sphero Golf” app. It doesn’t work flawlessly: Once you’ve set a cup, frisbee, or other target as your “hole,” you can either flick (using a gesture) or swing (using on your smartphone’s accelerometer and gyroscope) to direct Sphero towards the target. I had trouble getting either action to work successfully a large percentage of the time, particularly the swinging motion. You can switch between a putter, an iron and a driver as your golf club of choice. This app, I found, was the most difficult to master. It’s one thing to roll Sphero around and terrorize a large, fat cat, but it’s something else entirely to sink a putt. But I guess that’s golf.
The possibilities for other games are huge, though: build a Lego obstacle course, or mark a path you need to follow and earn points for how well you stick to it. Build some berms and play real-life Marble Madness.
Sphero is waterproof, so it can navigate your pool, though it doesn’t move as deftly. The waterproof case also makes it easy to clean, so you can take it off-roading — it performed surprisingly well around my San Francisco neighborhood.
When you buy a Sphero, you’re buying a hackable platform to stimulate your imagination (as well as your pet). This robotic ball will certainly give rise to some awesome, innovative applications down the road. We’ll have to wait for those, so right now, it’s just a toy.
WIRED Very responsive, a great RC toy. Battery lasts an hour before it needs to go back into the included charging cradle. Solid, waterproof construction. Free apps let you track stats, like the number of miles rolled. Could turn your kids into app developers.
TIRED Pricey! Requires calibration every time you turn it on, and needs to be recalibrated whenever Sphero’s compass falls out of sync with your phone’s compass (this happens frequently). Golf app is lame. Need to shake it to turn it on, so if you misplace it, it’s difficult to find.