Review: Orbotix Sphero
Compatible: All iPads, iPhone 3GS/4/4S + iPod touch 3G/4G
Historically, the line between "technology demo" and "finished product" was fairly clear: tech demos were free, incomplete software, hinting at what finished, paid products would become after receiving additional polish. But in recent years -- particularly after the introduction of the App Store -- that line has blurred, as apps are now routinely released in unfinished form, only to be fixed and sometimes rethought later, a process that has led to as much innovation as post-launch iteration. The demo versus final product dichotomy has oddly come up again with Orbotix's Sphero ($130), a wirelessly-controlled translucent white ball containing rechargeable battery-powered motors and colored lights. Announced in early 2011 for $100, Sphero was subsequently redesigned, bumped in price, and very slowly rolled out to customers, only appearing this past week in Apple Stores. Today, we're looking at where Sphero and its iOS app ecosystem stand, and whether it's worth spending $130 for this unique but unusual toy.
Sphero arrives in a small white and blue box with three parts. First is the roughly 3” diameter ball, which is smooth save for slightly elevated, stylized swirl marks on its sides, glowing with a small array of colored LED lights when it’s in use, charging, or in need of being charged. Second is a relatively plain black wall adapter, which connects to the third piece, an inductive charging dock. Equipped with its own blue LED, the dock blinks when it’s in the middle of a three-hour recharging cycle, then goes solid blue when the battery is full. While it’s hard to say that the ball and the charging station collectively feel worthy of even $80, let alone $130, each part is undeniably more thoughtfully designed than it might have been; the accessory does feel like a finished product, even if the price point isn’t quite right.
The charging station is noteworthy for what it does and doesn’t do; it does make charging as simple as dropping the ball in a dish, and only misses the obvious opportunity to serve as a start- or end-point for game apps. But the key element in Sphero is unsurprisingly the ball itself, which does a whole lot more than one might guess from its unassuming form and size. In early 2011, we summarized the pre-release incarnation of Sphero as a glorified pet toy, but this toy packs some interesting hardware: a Bluetooth 2 chip for up to 50-foot wireless control, gyroscope and accelerometer sensors, plus enough motorized power to roll over or out of uneven surfaces such as carpeting, though not grass. The inner colored lights clearly indicate its one-device-at-a-time pairing status, and a surprisingly sophisticated processor enables Sphero to pulse with color for a variety of app-specific purposes. Because of those apps, it’s fair to say that Sphero could be used as nothing more than a pet toy, but realistically, it’s capable of acting like many different toys, as well as other things.
You can skip the next section in favor of this short summary if you don’t want to read individually about all of the apps, but in truth, great software is the only thing that might make you spend $130 on a motorized ball. Orbotix has done a good job of thinking trough and working around the key issues users might experience across Sphero game apps, so you’re generally prompted to use a two finger rotation gesture on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch screen to orient the ball’s initial position relative to where you’re standing, and to reorient it where necessary. Short of tracking both your relative location and your iOS device’s—conceivable given Apple’s accelerometers and gyroscopes, though likely challenging—this is a good system for manually calibrating and recalibrating Sphero’s controls. Other apps remove the rolling elements from Sphero altogether, turning it into a handheld, rotating controller with a vibrating and glowing core. It’s these sorts of things that make Orbotix’s accessory seem more diverse and interesting than initially pitched, though whether you’d actually scoop up something that’s been rolling on the floor to use as a game controller remains questionable.
Orbotix has produced a number of free, universal iPad and iPhone apps to go along with Sphero—unfortunately none with updated graphics for the Retina display iPad— and a handful of third-party apps demonstrate how the ball can be used as a control mechanism.
The succinctly titled app Sphero is the best place for a Sphero purchaser to start. This free application contains elements of some of the others, collected together in a central hub. Users can control the ball with an on-screen joystick, by drawing a path, or even with voice commands. Another mode lets Sphero sit in a stationary position, answering spoken yes/no questions by blinking green or red depending on the answer. We’re not sure how the information is processed, but the responses seemed to be right more often than they were wrong. Gimmicks aside, this app shows off Sphero’s key toy features quite well.
A second free app called Sphero Chromo is unique in that it’s the only first-party app that requires users to pick Sphero up off the floor and use it as a controller for what’s on the iOS device’s screen, rather than the other way around. The game has you place your thumb over the ball’s blue taillight, twisting it around to control a point of light on the iPad or iPhone. There are various game modes, but through them all the idea is to move the dot around a circle towards a specific color segment. This is a fun but simple game, and an encouraging display of potential controller uses.
Next is the free Sphero Draw N’ Drive, which expands on the drawing control mechanism seen in the base Sphero app. When it’s launched, you’re presented with a graph paper-like grid and a color selector in the bottom left corner. Using your finger, you simply draw a path on the screen, and Sphero will follow it on the ground. What’s particularly neat is that the user can use a second finger to change the color of the line being drawn, and the LED in the ball will change accordingly on its route.
Developer Joshua Brickner’s Etch-o-Matic for Sphero ($3) is one of three apps in the App Store that doesn’t come from Orbotix itself. Again, you use the ball to control what’s on the screen, here replicating one knob’s functionality from the classic Etch-a-Sketch, with Sphero’s movement in space replacing the knob. Simply twist it in the air and the line will turn 90 degrees, allowing users to draw with straight lines. Other than a color switcher and the ability to reposition the cursor, there’s not too much more to it. While the idea of an Etch-a-Sketch feels quite dated to us, using a wirelessly connected toy to control it is kind of cool, at least for a little while.
Our favorite use of Sphero as a controller comes from Filipe Lemos’ Last Fish ($1). Here, the ball is used to move a fish through a monochromatic world, avoiding black goo and eating white food. Without a Sphero, the game can be played by tilting the iPad or iPhone. Using the ball is a much better way to go: the tracking is precise and the character goes just where you want it, with enough challenge to hold the player’s attention. Sphero is a genuinely fun way to control this game, which has a reasonable amount of real value.
Sphero Macrolab is the most techy app of the bunch, as well as the least visual. Instead of any sort of graphical controls, this one instead relies on pre-packaged and user-created programs and macros made from the built-in commands. You can set the sequence of rolling, lights, time delays, and more, with fine-grain settings for each. Then you hit play and watch Sphero execute the commands. Some of the macros that come preinstalled include “Figure 8” and “Spin in place,” which serve as helpful illustrations of what is possible. This free app is for those who really want to dive into the device, and a good demonstration of all the technology inside.
Sphero Cam is the most social of all Orbotix’s free apps. Rather than focusing on unique control schemes or play modes, it’s based around the concept of shooting photos and video of Sphero in action. Launching the app turns on your device’s camera with a few simple graphical overlays, including video, photo, and settings menus in the top right corner and a virtual joystick below them. Surprisingly, there are no built-in sharing tools; instead, clicking on the Share Videos/Pics setting simply displays a prompt for users to share from the Photos app. Apart from this omission, the app works well and it’s a smart way to encourage users to spread the word about the device, though users of camera-equipped iOS toys such as Brookstone’s Rover or Parrot’s AR.Drone will be reminded of a key hardware selling point that Sphero’s missing.
Those looking for additional control methods for their Spheros would do well to check out the free Sphero Drive. In addition to the virtual joystick shared by the namesake app, there are also tilt controls and RC-style controls. Each does exactly what the name would imply. Tilt allows you to move your iPad or iPhone with the gyroscope recognizing its position in space and communicating that to the ball. RC, on the other hand, has a dual thumbstick setup that fans of classic remote control vehicles will be familiar with. All three methods have boost buttons for extra speed, as well as general speed controls and the ability to change the color Sphero is displaying.
Finally there’s Sphero Golf, which is one of the cooler free apps from Orbotix. When launched, it instructs you to create a “hole” using a cup, frisbee, or anything else—this is where the recharging dock could have come in handy, if it was designed differently. Once your hole is created, you’re presented with a virtual tee. Aim the ball by twisting around with two fingers, then flick it to watch it roll forward, with distance and speed based on the club you select, plus how hard you flick. At the end of the hole, you simply slide the golf ball icon at the top to the hole—much like Apple’s own slide to unlock technique—and it resets the stroke count. This is a genuinely cool app, and adds some structure to playing with Sphero, other than just driving around aimlessly.
When rating Sphero, our editors didn’t just want to regurgitate the most obvious, conventional wisdom that prevailed when the product began to ship in limited quantities—that it was cool but too expensive—yet six months after early units began to ship out, pricing remains the single biggest problem with this product. We hesitated to give it a full Best of Show Award when Orbotix announced it for $100, but at $130, even the fanciest motorized ball would still be a very niche toy, and in the final analysis, that’s what Sphero is. Orbotix has now had two years of pre- and post-release time to develop apps, spur third-party developers to follow suit, and potentially drive the accessory’s price down via economies of scale. Today, more than six months after it began to trickle out, Sphero has only a handful of available apps, and though some of them are cool, it’s hard to imagine playing with any or all of them enough to justify the $130 asking price.
Orbotix deserves commendation for what it has accomplished with Sphero: it has built a small app ecosystem around a new accessory that was itself thoughtfully designed, though neither ideally priced nor marketed. Should the price go down, either a little with or a lot without some truly killer apps, this could become a hit with users, but in its current configuration, Sphero is worthy of only a limited recommendation. Our bet is that this small company has learned a lot of lessons during the development and initial sales process; hopefully we’ll see those lessons applied to a sequel or different product in the near future.
App reporting by Nick Guy.