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Product Review: Sphero

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Growing up, I was a huge fan of remote control cars (I assume I would have been a huge fan of RC planes and helicopters and boats too, I just never owned any so I can’t say for certain).   There is something excellent about holding a remote in your hand and watching this thing that’s 20 feet in front of you race off and turn and crash at your command. 

Of course, technology improves – gadgets get better.  The RC car, presumably, isn’t going anywhere, but if you’re in your 20s or 30s it might not look quite so cool for you to be going around your block racing one.  Enter Sphero.    Sphero is a little white ball with something inside (let’s call it “magic”) it that allows it to spin on your command… using your smartphone.  All you do is connect the Sphero to your phone/tablet (iOS or Android) via Bluetooth and then open one of the multitude of Sphero apps and race that little white ball with the potential to be oh-so-many colors via LED lights.

Okay, the boring tech bits before we get to the fun (and, in case you couldn’t tell, Sphero is fun).  According to the website, Sphero is a “high-impact polycarbonate shell” weighing 168 grams and with a 74mm diameter.  In English, it’s plastic-y, fits comfortably in your hand, and isn’t too heavy.  As for that “magic” that makes it move, that’s attributable to its “multi-axis rate gyro and accelerometer.”  The whole thing works off of lithium polymer batteries and can run for about an hour on a four hour charge.

Yes, that charge bit is less than awesome, but you know how cats go crazy for laser pointers?  Sphero does the same thing to toddlers. 

It says on the box to not let anyone under 13 play with Sphero, but in our world that means that no one under 13 gets to touch Sphero or the iPhone which controls it – those under 13 (like the 19 month old) can feel free to run after it to their hearts’ content… or until Sphero needs to be charged again (the latter is more likely than the former).

How do you orient yourself with this ball?  Inside Sphero there exists a bright blue light—Sphero’s tail—and by placing two fingers on the screen simultaneously in many of the apps you can spin where the tail is and thus also choose where Sphero will head when it starts going.  A recent firmware update to Sphero also solved one of the main drawbacks of racing it around RC car style – it used to be that Sphero couldn’t spin on a dime, that if it got stuck against a wall it couldn’t simply rotate around and come back out, now it can.

Ah, you say that remote control cars aren’t for you, well, not to worry, the geniuses at Orbotix who make Sphero haven’t called it a remote-control-car-but-in-ball-form, no, they call it a robot and as this robot is controlled via smartphone and Bluetooth, well, that means that new apps can (and are) continually created so you can do more than just drive Sphero around as though it were the coolest RC car ever. 

One of my personal favorite apps for Sphero is the golf app.  Set yourself a “hole” and then either flick the on-screen ball or swing your phone.  Keep on swinging until you reach your hole and then move on to the next one.  Another great, free, app is Chromo, which has you hold Sphero in your hand and then, essentially play Simon as the screen tells you what color you need to make Sphero turn by rotating it around.

Think of Sphero like a Thneed, but without that pesky Lorax or the need to destroy beautifully colored trees.  In AstroBall, Sphero is your flight simulator controller.  In Etch-o-Matic it’s an Etch-A-Sketch.  In Sphero MacroLab its computer side comes out as you program it to perform certain moves in sequence (figure eights, rainbows, spinning in place, etc.).  Not all of these apps are free and not all of them work on every device, but there are enough free ones that work across the board that you won’t quickly find yourself getting bored.

One of the things Sphero lacks is a great home hub – you have to leave an app and enter a new one as you want to do one thing and then another (if your finished golfing and want to program some moves you need to exit the golf app and then enter MacroLab rather than simply returning to home base within a single app and moving back out).  It isn’t really a crucial point, and it isn’t as though the Bluetooth connectivity drops just because you have left an app, but it would be a nice feature (it could also let you see what apps exist that you haven’t downloaded). 

We have been told that there is a lot more in the works as well, from updates to existing apps to wholly new ones.  The Sphero universe is an expanding one, and after playing with it for a little while you’ll be able to see why – it is just plain fun. 

If we are living in the “Age of the Geek” then Sphero is the exact sort of thing of which we’ll be seeing a whole lot more down the line.  And why shouldn’t we, from the way Sphero hunkers down in its cradle when you go to charge its battery to the flips your children will do when they see a dazzling multi-colored ball fly across the living room, to the fun you’ll have exploring all the sphere’s little nooks and crannies Sphero is just great.  With a list price of $129.99 it ain’t cheap, but it is great.


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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.