Sphero’s remote control robot has you “be the ball”

Remember when your parents were teaching you to play sports and they said “be the ball”? The inventors of a new robotic toy may have taken that a little too literally.

They’ve done this by crafting a robot called the Sphero, which is a small ball filled with sensors, magnetic encoders, wheels, wireless controllers, lights, and a processor that can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet.

“When we started, our original idea was to control real physical things with our smartphone,” said Ian Bernstein, CEO and Co-founder of Orbotix, the company that makes the Sphero.

“We prototyped tons of different things: door locks, tanks, lights, helicopters, all sorts of things. We like the ball for a couple of different reasons: the ball is a blank canvas for us.”

The Sphero ball is literally that, and encourages its owners to get creative about what you can do with it.

For instance, you can link it up with your smartphone or tablet and go for your life, driving the ball around your home without abandon, antagonising your pets as much as you want, and possibly anyone else you encounter, but it’s a device that does more than that.

Kids and students can learn how to program with it, starting from an early age where the developers have made “Draw ‘N Drive,” a small application that shows how a simple drawing can be followed by the robotic sphere.

If the idea of programming still tickles their fancy when they get older, there are other apps designed to get kids more into basic programming, such as “Macrolab” and “Orb Basic,” the latter of which gets the robot to respond to commands using the Basic programming language.

“We really want to give back,” said Bernstein, whose love for robotics started when he was younger and was pulling apart electronic. “We think Sphero is a really fun way of learning technology and programming.”

“There are other educational robots out there,” added Bernstein, “and they’re cool, but they’re just educational robots, whereas Sphero is this fun gaming robot, and you can play all these games with it, but then you can also program for it.”

Programming isn’t required by the customer, and there are over 25 apps and games available to Sphero owners today, many of which are made by the company responsible, though anyone else can come along and make games that take advantage of the robo-sphere.

But there are other functions, such as the ability to use the remote control robotic sphere as a Bluetooth gaming controller, shifting the position in your hand and having it affect games on mobile devices, such as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

A reinvention of board games is almost possible, too, as group activities can include physical games including who can pick up the colour-changing ball the fastest, while multiple Spheros can be controlled by multiple iOS devices, or as many as seven controlled by one Android.

And then there’s the inclusion of augmented reality, which Orbotix is rolling out shortly, and allows the Sphero controller to see a virtual avatar walking about as the Sphero is rolling about.

This is one side of the device that makes it more than just a robot, and brings it closer to a toy, with gameplay that is truly interactive, and if the ball is kicked, the onscreen avatar – a beaver by the name of Sharky – will even respond.

Looking at Sphero, it’s better built than you might expect, with a heavy plastic sphere encasing the technology inside, which more or less maintains its centre of gravity as you control the device and roll it every which way.

We’re particularly keen to see how the dogs respond to it, though a representative for Orbotix said that they had “never seen a dog bite all the way through it,” though if it had all day to chew through, it probably could, adding that pet stores were also picking it up.

Humans are less likely to bite in with their teeth, but their hands can play with the toy when it hits David Jones, Myer, Tech2Go, and iWorld stores this month from $179.95.