Sphero, The Robot Ball You Control With Your Phone, Is Getting Ready To Roll Into Your Home

Robotic balls and smart phone controls - Sphero is ready to make a big splash this holiday shopping season.

Orbotix has the hottest set of robot balls out there, and it’s finally showing what they really look like to the public. The Boulder-based startup recently released photos and video of the final form of Sphero, a mobile glowing plastic ball that you can remotely control with any iOS or Android phone via Bluetooth. More than simply a robot ball, Sphero is a new kind of gaming platform. Open to third party development, customers will be able to download specialized mobile apps that augment their play with the device. From teasing your cat to playing golf to beer pong, Sphero-enabled apps are ready to combine the digital and physical worlds into a mixed reality perfect for addictive game play. Check out some of the latest demos for Sphero in the videos below. Coming to the US in time for the 2011 holidays, you may wish to pre-order Sphero now at $130 before it’s sold out. This little glowing ball isn’t just cool, it’s a sign of where we may be headed in gaming.

About the size of a baseball, Sphero is essentially a rolling robot inside a plastic ball. It has various colored LEDs that allow it to change its appearance, and the smart phone control interface adds another layer to the experience as well. Since we’ve first reviewed Sphero back in January, they’ve finalized its overall look. The shell is less see-through, giving it a little more mystery and a little better color changing ability. The following video gives you a quick overview of Orbotix’s million dollar baby:

Part of what makes Sphero so potentially powerful is that it is very open to third party development. It’s not just a robot, it’s a gaming platform that anyone (with programming skills) can add to. The iOS and Android SDKs are free to download and Orbotix is actively working with developers to get their products ready to roll when Sphero debuts. I talked with Orbotix over the phone and they said that while we can only expect 3-5 apps to be ready at launch time, there will be a steady stream of new programs coming out soon thereafter. In fact, Orbotix has been quickly creating some very interesting apps in their “Hack Friday” events. I can see individual developers making neat one-off titles like the Beer Pong game you see in the following video:

Another “Hack Friday” invention, Orbotix experimented with using Sphero as an input device. Rotate the ball in your hands and you can manipulate virtual objects on the screen. Pretty simple, but a hint at the versatility of the platform:

More involved creations could follow the mixed-reality format of the Sphero Golf game in the next video. Here, a digital/touchscreen control system allows you to swing your phone like a club and get your Sphero to roll like a ball on the putting green. Pretty cool:

And, of course, you can always just put Sphero’s basic controls to creative use and package that in a new way, as we see when you use the robot ball to play with your cat:

Talking with Orbotix, it seems that “mixed reality” is really the first killer app for Sphero. Games like beer pong and golf allow you to use the digital interface to control Sphero, track scores, etc while the actual game is being played with the physical hardware in the real world. The opportunity for development here is pretty vast – we could see everything from racing apps to puzzle games that combine smart phone controls and user-made physical obstacle courses. Eventually, however, Orbotix should evolve into including more true augmented reality applications. Look through your phone’s camera and Sphero could be seen not rolling around your office, but rolling through a virtual world. Orbotix says that AR games are on the way (perhaps fairly soon after launch), but that their more advanced nature requires more setup.

Sitting on their induction chargers, the first wave of Spheros gets ready to launch. $130 for a robot platform with new apps coming out regularly? Sounds like a pretty good deal.

Overall, what makes Sphero really exciting is that they are exploring a rapidly evolving arena in gaming: the intersection of physical and digital space. Like Parrot’s AR Drone, Sphero gives you a real robot to play with, but it also can place that robot in a virtual world you see on your mobile device. That hybridization is still fairly unique in gaming, and hopefully it will attract a great deal of developers looking for new programming opportunities and platforms. It’s hard to know if the $130 price tag is ideal for consumers, it’s certainly in the right ball park, and the steady availability of new apps should increase its appeal. I suspect that the concept of “mixed reality” and augmented reality gaming with robots is much bigger than any one company, but Orbotix is showing early signs that it could be a breakout success. It secured $5 million in series B funding in April, and while they won’t give me exact details as to their pre-order sales, Orbotix did say that they are recommending friends pre-order now as they are very likely to sell out. They’re expanding into international markets next year, and should be making firmer announcements about US launch dates in the next few weeks.

Sphero was one of the most lauded and coveted gaming platforms at CES 2011. By the time CES 2012 rolls by in January I suspect it will be one of the most sought after toys on the consumer market…at least for geeks like me. Even if it’s not, however, I expect many good things from robots and augmented reality games joining forces. Alone either one is pretty cool. Together? They’re just too fun to ignore.

[image and video credits: Orbotix/Sphero]
[source: Orbotix blog]

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