Orbotix calls the Sphero a “mixed reality game experience
You may remember that, in the movie “Field of Dreams,” a mysterious voice in Kevin Costner’s head kept intoning: “If you build it, they will come.” It took some time for him to realize that somewhat unspecific piece of guidance really meant: “If you build a baseball diamond in a cornfield, dead players will come back to life.”
But that line could just as well have referred to iPhones and Android phones: “If you build wireless features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi into a hand-held computer, somebody’s going to turn it into a remote control.”
Or lots of somebodies. Today, app phones can control all kinds of toys, either from across the room or across the Internet: computers, home security cameras, home entertainment systems, cameras, toy cars and toy helicopters. But a start-up called Orbotix had an idea for a remote-controlled toy that was simultaneously far simpler and more complex: a ball.
It’s called the Sphero ($130), and it’s just rolling in from China this week. If it hadn’t been delayed and now back-ordered, it might have been one of the hottest tech gifts of this holiday season.
Orbotix calls the Sphero a “mixed reality game experience,” but that’s like calling a nuclear meltdown an “unrequested fission surplus.” Let’s be honest: It’s a remote-controlled ball.
You stand in one place, tapping controls on the screen of your Android phone, iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. The self-propelled, baseball-size sphere rolls around in the specified direction. You can’t stop yourself from trying to guess how that’s even possible.
There’s a lot of advanced miniature technology inside: a tilt sensor, compass, gyroscope and a little motor with wheels that makes the thing roll.
From the outside, though, all you see is a whitish translucent hard plastic ball.
It has LED lights inside whose color, intriguingly, you can change using the Sphero app on your phone. They cast a strange, fish-shaped shadow on the top of the ball — the shadow of the moving parts inside.
Before you get started with your freakish new remote-control toy, you have to prepare. Using your phone, you have to download the Sphero control apps from the Apple or Android app store.
Next, you charge the Sphero’s battery, which takes three hours and yields an hour of ball-driving excitement. And where do you plug a charger into a featureless white orb? You don’t. You simply set the Sphero down on its charging stand, which is itself plugged into a power outlet. The stand uses magnetic induction — wireless charging — to rejuice the battery. A very slick trick.
You give the ball a couple of shakes to wake it up. Now, in your phone’s settings, you “pair” your ball to your phone — a one-time Bluetooth ritual that ensures that only your phone controls only your Sphero.
On your phone, you now open the Sphero app. A series of tutorial screens walk you through orienting the ball — teaching it which way is forward. You do this by twisting two fingers on the phone’s screen. As you twist, a weird, glowing blue dot, shining from within, moves around the ball’s equator. When it’s pointing right at you, you’re ready to drive.
You’ll get very familiar with this orientation process — you have to do it again every time the ball shuts itself off to conserve battery power, which happens after five minutes of inactivity.
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