Concerned mothers and congressmen have publicly lamented that children don't know the difference between video games and the real world. Little did they realize that in the future there won't truly be a difference. Case in point: Sphero from Orbotix. About the size of a baseball, Sphero is a rolling robot that you can control with your smart phone (iOS and Android) through an easy touchscreen interface, or simply by tilting. Sphero is much more than the successor to the remote controlled car, however. It's also a video game platform. Using Orbotix's API, developers will be able to create Apps and games that take advantage of Sphero's dual use of video phone and robot. Augmented reality will allow you to roll Sphero around in the real world, and have it destroying buildings or crushing monsters in the virtual reality you see on your iPhone screen. Currently on display at this year's CES, Sphero is still just a robot with a cool control system - the games will come at the end of 2011 when the device hits market for around $100. You can watch Orbotix's CEO Ian Berberian show off the Sphero at CES in the video below. This little robot ball is another example of how virtual experiences in the real world will be among the defining paradigms of gaming in the next decade.
Forget the bigger picture for a minute, and let's just talk about how cool Sphero really is. The 74 mm (~3 inch) shell hides a small interior robot with wheels - think of it as the 21st century equivalent of a hamster in a ball. Unlike your typical pet, however, Sphero comes with Bluetooth connectivity, allowing it to be controlled by your iPhone (or Android phone) up to a distance of 50 feet or so. That control interface not only lets you set parameters like turn speed and drive speed, it also allows you to change the ball's color via three RGB LED lights. Sphero's 'coodrinate system matching' gives it a unique mode of driving - no matter which way the ball is 'facing' left on the controls will always move the robot left from your point of view (or right, forward, etc). For those who drive RC cars or planes, you know how different that is from the norm. Throw in a tilt control mode, a 'boost' mode, a 'sport' mode, and some time trial tools and you have one sweet little phone-operated robot. I have a lot of respect for Oliver Chiang from Forbes who shot the first video below at CES. If I was there I would have ripped the iPad out of Berberian's hands so I could play with Sphero myself. ...I have more enthusiasm than patience, just saying.
Orbotix also isn't exactly forthcoming on the specifics of the internal hardware for Sphero. (No word yet on battery-life, but the bot will use an induction charger.) In case you wanted to take a look 'under the hood', here's a short preview video of Sphero that Orbotix released a few weeks ago that features the robot without its opaque shell.
So Sphero is a fun robot you can control with your iPhone. We've seen that done better before. What makes it truly representative of the upcoming evolution in gaming is that it is a phone-operated robot that will serve as an augmented reality platform. Orbotix is currently soliciting developers for their API, looking to have several video games available for the Sphero when it launches at the end of 2011. They project that such games (packaged as Apps) will cost around $10. There will also be several unspecified applications to further showcase Sphero's capabilities to customers and developers alike:
"There will be a number of free and paid games at launch so Sphero owners will have a wide range of games to enjoy. Sphero will come with a base driving app at launch and we're working on some other cool free apps that will come at launch to demonstrate the platform."
--- Go Sphero website, 2011
In a year we'll have a robot that can roll around your home for $100, and that you can upgrade with (augmented reality) video games at a reasonable price. Actually, Sphero won't be the only such device. We've already seen Parrot's amazing AR Drone, a quadrotor helicopter that flies via iPhone controls, has on-board cameras, and produces its own growing suite of AR games. Sphero is considerably cheaper than AR Drone, but that just furthers one of my main points: AR robot gaming is going to be big. Big enough to handle several different platforms at different price points and in different realms of experience. Especially as smart phones become more popular, robots become cheaper, and we move towards an "App-style" economy for small-scale video games that transform these robots from novelties into gaming platforms. Not that I'm predicting that Sphero (or AR Drone) is going to definitely be a success. It could flop. Yet the genre as a whole is almost certainly going to grow. So start getting ready to write that letter to Congress. If they were worried about video games before who knows what they'll do once robots start bringing them into the physical world.