As the holiday shopping frenzy begins, a little robotic ball known as Sphero might be the perfect tech gift for someone who likes to be awed by the latest toy and the ingenuity that makes it work.
On its surface, it looks like a simple remote-control ball that you control using an Android or an iOS (iPhone, iPad, etc.) device. In some ways, that's exactly what it is. But the robotic technology packed into this unique ball from Orbotix makes the ball much more than that.
You can use the Sphero as a game controller or party game, program it, drive it, play pranks on people or chase pets with it, swim with it, change its color, update the firmware inside the ball, receive information from it to your smartphone and imagine more ways to play.
“There's definitely not any consumer robotic product out there that is as intelligent and sophisticated as the Sphero is,” said Chuck Lepley, Orbotix marketing manager.
The Sphero already has 20 mobile applications, most of them free, across its compatible devices that can control it, and developers are invited to create apps for their own ways to play with the ball. The polycarbonate ball is more durable than it first appears — it's waterproof and can be dropped from a height of three or four feet onto hard concrete “all day long” without damaging the technology inside, Lepley said.
The people at Orbotix loaned me a Sphero for review, and it was a hit around the office. The advanced technology inside it is apparent from the first time you start controlling it, and videos on the website show what developers had to create to make the ball work, which makes its capabilities even more impressive. The ball is fun for all ages, although my dog didn't like it; with all the apps, I kept wishing I had more time to play.
A drawback for many people was the $129 price tag; it would be more appealing in the $75 range because basically, it is an expensive toy. However, Lepley said the people who are familiar with robotics wonder how Orbotix could charge so little, especially since the ball is so advanced and versatile. He also notes that Orbotix consistently improves the Sphero's performance through updates and new app releases.
“Single and multiplayer apps let you engage in the virtual world and play in the real one. It's the ball, evolved,” reads promotional material for Sphero.
Last week, Orbotix introduced its first augmented reality app called “Sharky the Beaver” on the iTunes store. On screen in the app, which uses the user's device's camera, users will see a cartoon beaver named Sharky depicted traveling around in the same space the ball is traveling. (If the ball is on your kitchen floor, you'll see Sharky on screen on the same kitchen floor.) In another twist, you can turn it into a game by turning the phone vertically and flinging cupcakes into Sharky's mouth.
In augmented reality, the Sphero serves as the orientation point known in tech imaging circles as the “fiduciary marker” for tracking Sharky's movements. In most augmented reality, this marker is fixed by the points around it; with Sharky, the Sphero is designed as a movable marker, an effort that required a lot of “math and patented software,” Lepley said.
Other apps include the main Sphero app for driving the ball; Sphero Golf; Sphero Macrolab, which lets users program their own actions for the ball; Sphero ColorGrab, a party game for multiple people; Sphero Exile, a spaceship game that uses the Sphero as a joystick; Sphero Chromo, Sphero Pet, Sphero Tag (if you have more than one ball); and others.
Most of the apps are free and work as long as you have the Sphero. Sphero is available under the name Sphero Robotic Ball Gaming System at retailers like Brookstone, Barnes and Noble and Target or at the website, www.gosphero.com.
Released last year just in time for Christmas, the tech toy initially appealed to developers and early-adopter tech enthusiasts, Lepley said. This Christmas, Orbotix is seeing the market for Sphero shift to kids, teens and families.
“There really is something for everyone, and anyone that sees it driving around instantly gets a smile on their face,” Lepley said in an email.
For a video of the Sphero as well as more discussion about individual apps, go online to blog.NewsOK.com/get-appy. Email app ideas to email@example.com.