Practically any remote-controlled vehicle can keep kids of all ages occupied for as long as the vehicle remains interesting – which is usually as long as the batteries will last. To make that formula a little more exciting, you can find a toy that uses a smartphone app as the remote, giving you an even more interesting way to play with a toy. Recently, Orbotix (a company based out of Boulder, Colorado) invited me to check out one of the gadgets produced by their shop. It’s called Sphero 2.0, and it’s a remote-controlled sphere. Now, I can hear the gears turning, so I’ll break it down for you – it’s a lot cooler than you might think and is more than just a simple remote-controlled device.
Sphero 2.0 is a very simple object – on the outside. It is a white sphere with the blue Sphero logo on it1. To most, it will seem slightly heavier than it appears (it looks like a large ping pong ball), but contained within is the mechanism that propels it (they call it a robot; I like to call it Science Goodness). Also in the box are: a stand (which doubles as an induction charger, complete with a power cord), some ramps, and a guide – everything that you need to get up and running right away. Setting up Sphero for play is as easy as taking it out of the box. First, it must be charged on the stand; but once the unit is charged, you just tap it twice on any surface and it will flash 3 different colours. This sequence is used to ensure that you are pairing with the correct Sphero (in the settings) via Bluetooth. Once paired, you can start up the Sphero app on your iOS or Android device, name your Sphero (I called mine Spherogi), and begin playing.
What’s in the box.
The main Sphero app has two different ways to enjoy this toy. The first is called Just Drive and the second is called Level Up. Just Drive does exactly what the name implies: it allows you to play without any restrictions – all of the abilities are available from the get-go. Level Up, on the other hand, is a time-based exercise in patience. Unlike Just Drive, in Level Up the Sphero starts out without all of the bells and whistles. As you play, you gain experience points and currency thanks to time. Leveling up allows you to gain abilities (like speed and brightness), while the in-ball moolah allows you to purchase Boost, Spaz, and Rainbow. Boost is a gauge on one side of the screen that you can touch to temporarily increase your speed for as long as units remain in the gauge. Spaz causes the Sphero to go berzerk, hopping and spinning while your hand-held device screams like a banshee. Finally, Rainbow causes the LEDs within Sphero to cycle through bright colours while a dance mix plays on your hand-held – for a few seconds.
By this point, an interesting predicament may have occurred to you: with most remote control vehicles, it’s easy to know where the front is; how can one pick out the front of a perfect, white sphere? Well, Orbotix has a very cool way around this issue: they have an LED “taillight” that you can orient using the app – this indicates where the “rear” of the vehicle is, making it easy to send it zipping off in whatever direction you like. The benefit of this touch-driven procedure is that you can re-orient Sphero any time that you want, allowing you to get unstuck if you happen to find yourself unable to move forward.
Controlling Sphero is very easy; the Just Drive and Level Up interface screens are essentially the same. The main control mechanism is a circle with a large direction symbol in between it – essentially a touch-based joystick. Placing your finger on the symbol allows you to move it within the confines of the circle, which causes the robot to move in that direction; lifting your finger “releases” the control, sending it back to the center of the circle, resulting in Sphero rolling to a stop. Above the circle control is a speed gauge, which is configurable. There are also touch-buttons for Boost, Abilities (Spaz and Rainbow), a colour-setting utility (there are millions of colours to choose from), settings and the calibration tool.
Glowy! For the record, that’s not me.
I was pretty impressed with the way Sphero handled. When Chuck Lepley (from Orbotix) was showing me how it worked, I thought that he was so good at it because he had lots of practice. While he is definitely a seasoned Sphero pilot, he emphatically stated that the interface had been designed in such a way as to get people acclimatized quickly, so they could have fun as fast as possible. When I took the reins for a little bit, I found that it was actually really easy to control. Eventually, when I played with my own Sphero at home (courtesy of Orbotix), I was fairly good within a short span of time. Smallest Thumb took her turn with the Sphero (a long turn, I might add) and remarked that it was very easy to use and a lot of fun to play with. Sphero is very responsive, and if there is any lag between my iPod Touch and the Sphero, I can’t really detect it, which makes it all the more fun – nothing sucks more than a remote-control toy that has a high level of latency between the controller and the vehicle.
When comparing Sphero to other remote-control toys, the benefits are actually fairly evident. For one thing, the only moving parts are within Sphero itself, protected by a thick layer of plastic. Secondly, if you’re not afraid of getting Sphero dirty or scratched, you can take it outside and drive it around on practically any terrain. Now, because it is a smooth sphere, it may not get a lot of traction, causing it to slow down. However, Orbotix is looking to release the Nubby, a silicone cover with cleats that easily slips over the Sphero, giving it traction and durability at the expense of speed. Last, there is the pure fun factor: Sphero can move at speeds of up to 7 feet (approximately 2 meters) per second, can be controlled from as far away as 90 feet, and it glows in the dark – providing an hour of playtime after 3 hours on the induction charger.
In addition, since Sphero is app-driven, it has quite a number of other uses. One of the apps, called Pass the Sphero (free) is a hot-potato clone in which players hold on to the toy for as long as they want and then shake it and pass it on to the next player. The longer you hold onto Sphero, the more points you get; but if you’re stuck with the “hot potato” in your hand when it “explodes”, you lose all of your accumulated points. Another free game that is available is called Sphero ColorGrab; this game has players competing to see who has the best reaction time by indicating the color of choice on the the hand-held screen while the Sphero flashes a number of different colours, challenging the player to pick up Sphero when the indicated colour appears. There is also Sphero Golf, which allows you to either use your finger on the touch-screen or use your hand-held as a golf club to knock the “ball” around a course of your choosing.
The Just Drive interface.
For the nerdy folks out there, a few apps exist for Sphero that allow you to use your hand-held device to play Augmented Reality games. Really, Sphero is perfect for these kinds of applications, as it is a perfect Sphere. Calculations for its distance from the camera are easy to work out because its dimensions are always the same; also, calculating its distance from the ground is easy because that is also proportionally constant. What does this mean? It means that Augmented Reality is easy to do well with Sphero. One of the prime examples of this is The Rolling Dead, a zombie game in which you have to avoid zombies long enough to power up with flame-shooting ability. The zombies are spawned on the playing field which is shown on the screen of your hand-held device, and you have to eventually take them out. What’s cool about it, though, is that I found that the size of the zombies depended on your distance to Sphero (and the app did a good job displaying them).
Sphero is also something of an educational tool thanks to the apps like the Sphero MacroLab, which allows the user to program their Sphero to do some interesting routines. A large number of pre-programmed procedures can be stitched together to form some fairly complicated sequences. This sort of activity is great to give your mind and problem-solving skills a bit of a workout. Even better? The programs that you create can be shared with friends using a simple export routine (which you can send via e-mail). And if all of these things were not enough, the Sphero can also be used as a game controller.
Now that I have spent some time with the Sphero, my mind can’t help but drifting back to the original demo. During that hour, Chuck spoke about the concept behind Sphero (I’m paraphrasing): it is fun – pure and simple, because it is a ball, and the shape of the ball has always been related to gaming, whether simple (like using it for a game of catch), or complex (consider a game of baseball). It is a comfortable shape associated with amusement. With the Sphero, once you’re charged up you are able to let it roll and have a good time; and with the Augmented Reality apps, you can turn whatever environment you are occupying into a videogame. Also? It can be used as a kick-ass pet toy.
Want to protect your Sphero and add some traction?
At $130, Sphero is a bit on the expensive side for what some may think is a simple remote-controlled toy; however, the Sphero is far from simple. Its perfect design and clever smartphone apps (there are currently 25 apps for iOS and Android) allow you to have an immense amount of fun in a surprising number of ways, without worrying about water, dust, or pet hair clogging up the innards. While it is fairly tough, there are some restrictions on how you should use it – but nothing that will get in the way of pure, childlike fun. If $130 is too much for you, there is always the option of purchasing the previous version (Sphero Original) or even getting a hold of a refurbished one for a really good price2. I have to hand it to Orbotix – this is a remote-controlled device that I would recommend to anyone that likes to have fun – regardless of their age! Now, hurry up Orbotix: make a vehicle-sized one so I can roll around town chasing people who are dressed up as Indiana Jones…