Orbotix’s Sphero — a small robotic ball you remote-control with a smartphone or tablet — is one of those gizmos that runs the risk of being something you love for half an afternoon and then stick in the back of a drawer forever. But the company, which released the product in 2011, has been working hard to prove its brainchild is no one-trick pony. A growing range of iOS and Android apps, from both Orbotix and third-party developers, let it perform more and more tricks.
And now the Sphero hardware itself is getting better. Or, more specifically, faster, brighter and more agile. Sphero 2.0 arrives late this month. Orbotix is taking pre-orders now, and provided me with a couple of units to try out.
A lot hasn’t changed: Sphero is still a $130 white orb made of sturdy plastic. (Running into walls and flying off tables — which it does frequently, with great aplomb — shouldn’t do it any damage.) It still comes with a base, which uses inductive technology to recharge it without a connector. The new version works with all the existing apps; there are 25 of them, most of which are either free or 99 cents.
The new internal robotics can propel the ball at up to seven feet a second, twice the old pace. That’s fast enough to make it feel as if it’s really whipping along, much more so than with its predecessor. You can ratchet the speed down in Orbotix’s apps, and will probably want to do so as you figure out the steering. Orbotix says it improved how the ball uses Bluetooth to allow for more precise navigation, but it’s still not a precision instrument — it’s easy to get it going in a general direction, and a challenge to make it do exactly what you want.
The ball’s LED lighting system, which lets it glow in an array of colors, is now three times brighter; it’s used for everything from in-the-dark use to a Simon-like color-matching game to alerting you when the battery is running low.
Sphero now comes with two plastic ramps, which let it perform Evel Knievel-like daredevil acts. I found them to be fun — see the above clip — but it took a lot of practice to steer the ball accurately enough at a high enough speed to zip up and off a ramp, and I needed to tape the ramps down to keep the ball from knocking them out of place when it made impact. (As with other things you can do with a Sphero, it feels less like you’re issuing commands to a robotic servant and more like you’re training a small pet who means well but has a mind of its own.)
Also new are optional $15 “Nubby Covers” — skins for Spheros that turn them into all-terrain vehicles, able to travel more reliably over rough surfaces and safely through water.
As before, you might lose interest in simply steering Sphero around pretty quickly — though even just that might have a fair amount of lasting appeal in households with kids and/or pets. But the apps make the ball into a truly smart toy. You can play golf by whacking it around into real-world objects you specify as “holes.” You can experience augmented-reality games such as Sharky the Beaver, which lets you aim your device’s camera at the ball and turn it into an on-screen critter. Some games, such as a space shoot-em-up called the Sphero Exile, use the ball as a trackball, allowing you to spin it in space to control on-screen action. You can even program the ball yourself, creating macros that send it off on pre-set rolling adventures or which change its color in ways you specify.
Basically, Sphero is what you make of it — and what the people who write Sphero apps make of it. Orbotix has already done more with the concept than I would have guessed when I first saw the company demoing the ball at tech trade shows, and version 2.0 shows that they’re not done refining it.
Here’s Orbotix’s epic video about Sphero 2.0:
Oh, and one other bit of news: The Apple Store is getting an exclusive special edition of Sphero 2.0. It’s got cutaway patches that reveal the electronics inside, kind of like an old-school see-through iMac. It looks cool, but I found it a tad harder to use than the standard version, because it’s tougher to see the “tail light” that helps you orient the ball so it goes in the direction you expect.
Here’s a video that shows the Apple Store version: