Orbotix’s Sphero Gets the Ball Rolling for Augmented Reality Games

Xconomy Boulder/Denver — 

When I first learned about Orbotix and its plan to build the first robot you could control with a smartphone or tablet, my reaction could pretty much be summed up as this: Shut up and take my money!!!

That was less than three years ago. Orbotix, which is based in Boulder, CO, had just graduated from the TechStars startup accelerator. At that point, it had a prototype for what would become Sphero. Within its first year, Orbotix would raise more than $6 million in venture capital.

Sphero was sure to be a hit, I thought. It seemed so self-evident I was mildly shocked when someone didn’t get it—it’s a robot you control with your iPhone!

Yeah, but what does it do? they’d ask.

Well, you drive it around stuff, like this…

…and there will be games, where you drive it around…other stuff…and they say you’ll be able to hack it…

Fortunately, the team at Orbotix had a better, far more ambitious answer. After they mastered the challenge of designing, building, and mass producing what’s one of the most advanced gadgets ever made for the consumer market, Sphero would become a platform for games that would make use of augmented reality.

In that vision, players would control Sphero as it rolled around in the real world, while the app would create a game in the digital world. Sphero would dash down hallways and around corners, while on screen zombies would chase it. You could turn your living room or patio into the setting for a video game.

Since Sphero’s release, I’ve been playing with it on and off, especially over the past six weeks. Orbotix and third-party developers have released about 20 games or apps for it. I’ve tested most of them, focusing on The Rolling Dead and Sharky the Beaver, the company’s latest two releases.

Many of the games in Sphero’s lineup are fun, catchy, and challenging. Over the years they’ve shown a steady increase in quality and ambition, culminating in the most recent releases.

That’s why even though Sphero still occasionally feels like a work in progress, it does a great job of illustrating Orbotix’s vision and the company’s promise. Orbotix wants to make Sphero one of the first products to successfully blend the digital world with the real and help usher in the era of augmented reality gaming. It seems to be on its way.

First, an introduction is appropriate.

Sphero’s tagline is “Part Ball, Part Robot, All Fun.” While the last part of the statement will depend on the user, the first two-thirds are a good place to start.

Sphero is about the size and weight of a baseball. You can even throw it against a wall and it will survive unscathed, as Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian demonstrated when I visited the Orbotix headquarters in Boulder in May. (While Sphero is surprisingly rugged, it should be noted that the manual discourages throwing Sphero or dropping it on hard surfaces or from higher than 18 inches. Also, it’s not for chewing, either by people, dogs, or zombies.)

Sphero’s hard plastic shell is packed with an accelerometer, antenna, battery, circuit board, gyroscope, LED light, motor, and more. It connects to iOS or Android devices via Bluetooth and has a range of about 50 feet. Orbotix says its top speed is 3 feet per second.

Orbotix also has made Sphero smart and hackable. The company has released a software development kit so owners and enthusiasts can create apps and try to one-up each other at hackathons and online. It also has produced Sphero MacroLab, an app that lets non-programmers teach Sphero to do simple tricks or run through pretty complicated patterns.

Sphero has attracted a lot of attention from the tech press and the gadget-obsessed, and rightly so. It’s one of the most advanced robots a consumer can buy, at least for the $129.99 it costs online.

But as impressive as Sphero is from an engineering standpoint, it’s fair to wonder if it has the staying power to justify the cost. It certainly gets the attention of the 10-year-old inside every technophile, but would it be worth a 10-year-old’s allowance money?

To be honest, for the first year or so Sphero was on the market, the answer might have been no. Sphero has a wow factor, and if you take it out in public it’s a nice conversation starter.

Early games like Sphero Golf showed Sphero had potential as a game platform. The best and most complicated game was “Exile,” a shoot ’em up that uses Sphero as a spaceship’s controller; players hold Sphero in their hand and tilt it subtly to steer the ship through space as it tries to destroy enemies. It’s fun and a well-designed game, especially if you have a light touch.

The possibilities to hack and program Sphero could keep enthusiasts busy and happy, but eventually the novelty factor wears off for less ardent fans. It wasn’t hard to imagine Sphero languishing on less sophisticated buyers’ shelves next to their quadricopters.

But from the start, Orbotix has made clear its ambition goes beyond making the next must-have gadget that everyone wants for Christmas but will forget by Easter. … Next Page »

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2 responses to “Orbotix’s Sphero Gets the Ball Rolling for Augmented Reality Games”

  1. SpheroLover says:

    My sphero dropped more then 18 inches!!!! What happens if it falls over the limit?! By the way Orbotix, I LOVE SPHERO!

  2. sokre says:

    Sharky The Beaver for android!???