One of the movies that always scared me half to death as a child was Phantasm (for the uninitiated, it’s an underground horror flick from 1979)- not because the movie itself was really that terrifying, but the thought of a little ball floating and chasing someone was unnerving. While the Sphero by Orbotix might not float in mid air, or have death spikes and a mini drill to bore into your brain, chasing my child around the house with it strangely reminded me of that movie. The Sphero was fun for those times – but how long would that fun last, and how well would the robotic ball work?
The Sphero is a neat little toy – basically a ball with some neat parts inside. The “guts” so to speak, make the Sphero look, and sometimes feel as though it were alive. They are constantly moving when the Sphero is awake, working to keep themselves close to the ground, while allowing the ball itself to roll around. You see, the guys at Orbotix had to think to themselves that your smartphone can already control so much stuff (from televisions and DVRs to security systems, to flying helicopters), why not make a ball that can move with the assistance of a smartphone. Not only that, but they made it control a lot better than you would think – although the controls do take a lot of getting used to.
Setting it up is easy, just enable the Bluetooth on your phone, shake the Sphero to wake it up, and pair the two up. From then on any time the Bluetooth is on on your smartphone and you wake up the Sphero, it will auto pair and be ready to go. I played with both an Android phone and an iPhone 4S, and never ran into any problems with either – the pairing was almost instantaneous with both phones. Now every time you go to use the Sphero you need to first calibrate it – this should really be a give though because you are dealing with a ball, and without calibrating it there is no way for it to know what “forward” would be for you. The calibration is simple – touch the screen with two fingers then pinch and spin them until a bright blue point of light faces you. This point of light represents the “tail” of the Sphero, and it is important to always keep that facing you in order to make driving easier. You can calibrate on the fly by just repeating the two finger touch, and you’ll more than likely find yourself doing this quite a bit (at least if you want it to go where you tell it to).
There are five free apps you can download to control the Sphero, but they all do basically the same thing. The self titled Sphero app is the one I used most of all because the options were easy to find, and the others weren’t the greatest – but we’ll get to that. Through the app you can change the Sphero’s color, ask it some questions like a Magic 8 Ball, and one of the neatest features – draw a path and then “run” it, watching your little ball follow where you told it to go. Obviously that works best in a wide open space, but it can be fun to guesstimate where obstacles are while drawing. You can also use that app to connect to “Sphero World” – a social hub that tracks all sorts of achievements (great for kids!) and statistics about how much you play with your Sphero. Oh you can name it as well – I chose Cthulhu, but you can pick whatever you like.
The other apps consist of the following: Spherocam – no, it doesn’t enable a secret camera to allow you to see what your Sphero does (although that would have been absolutely AMAZING). The Spherocam overlays a control stick on top of your normal camera app, so you can take videos of whatever your Sphero is doing – if it sounds a little boring, that’s because it unfortunately is. Spherodrive is an app all about control, taking the normal joystick and adding two other ways to control your Sphero to it. With Spherodrive you can use your phone’s accelerometer to tip and tilt your way around, or you can set it up with “dual virtual sticks” like you would see on an RC vehicle, with the left stick controlling throttle and the right stick doing the steering. As I have driven RC trucks for years, I had a much easier time with this setup, but to each his own. Next on the list is Spherogolf – an app that could have been good, but ultimately falls very short. This app challenges you to use items around your house (like cups) as “holes”, and then use the Sphero as a golf ball. Sounds good right? Well if the Sphero was a bit more responsive it might have been better, but as it stands, changing clubs does very little, and it makes you crave more control over anything else.
Last but not least is Draw&Drive – the only app that doesn’t begin with the pseudo prefix “Sphero”. Much like in the base Sphero app, you are able to trace your finger to draw a path for your Sphero to follow, but Draw&Drive adds some extra bells and whistles to the mix. Basically you can make your Sphero change colors while driving as many times as you care to. It’s fun, but not entirely useful other than to mess with family pets. In the end, that is one of the best uses of the Sphero though. I have a Sheltie that goes bug nuts over lights, so needless to say it was fun to watch the Sphero make him go crazy. Even my ten year old son got bored with it after a few hours, although my two year old nephew thought it was fun when I made it change colors. Until some better apps come out, I can’t see this being any more than a nick nack on someone’s mantle, or desk shelf.
Bottom Line: The Sphero has a LOT of potential behind it, but limited apps and poor control are holding it back – with the SDK released though we could see things soon to change all that.
- Can keep pets and infants occupied for a long time
- The internal LED can change to pretty much any color you’d like
- The induction charger is a unique idea
- Extremely expensive for what it does
- Gets boring pretty quickly
- Severely limited by the apps available
You can pick up a Sphero of your own from their store for $129.99