Orbotix’s Sphero Gets the Ball Rolling for Augmented Reality Games

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Berberian has said there would be a lot more to Sphero, and that Orbotix had a vision to make it the first gaming system that would deliver on the promise of augmented reality.

Orbotix now is delivering on that promise, in the unlikely form of a smart-mouthed beaver.

Orbotix released Sharky the Beaver last November. Sharky’s an animated character with only one ambition in life—eating cupcakes. Lots and lots of cupcakes. His name comes from the shark fin he wears.

To play, you need an iOS device (the game isn’t available on Android). It’s pretty simple, as you flick cupcakes at Sharky as he manically scurries around the floor. The goal is to feed Sharky enough cupcakes before time runs out. It’s just like tossing a treat to your dog. Here’s a video from the company:

What makes Sharky the Beaver impressive is the smooth blend between the virtual world of the app and the physical world of you and Sphero. As you look at the screen, you see your room. Sharky runs around your floor, careens into your couch, and gets stuck under your table. If he misses a cupcake, it bounces off the floor.

Of course it’s Sphero navigating the room. It communicates to the iPhone or iPad using Bluetooth, while the app captures video through the camera and renders Sharky over the ball. Put Sharky in drive mode, and you can steer him around the room as he collects gold coins. For me, it was like seeing Sonic the Hedgehog materialize in my living room 20-some years after his debut on the Sega Genesis. Only this furry little animal sometimes needs to be rescued from behind the radiator.

Amazingly, Sphero does all that without requiring any type of marker that fixes its location or limits where it can roll.

It’s an impressive example of Orbotix’s augmented reality engine. The image of Sharky almost never separates from Sphero, he runs at the right speed, and he pivots when Sphero changes direction.

Orbotix also nailed the character design, giving Sharky expressive eyes that convey a personality that alternates between winsome and annoying. When Sharky catches a cupcake, he makes a blissful comment. If you toss him a vegetable, you’ll feel his wrath.

The stars of the latest game from Orbotix have a personality that’s not quite as charming.

The Rolling Dead was released the first week of June. Your mission is to kill zombies, either by shooting them or powering up so Sphero becomes a zombie-killing fireball.

Like Sharky, the Rolling Dead is a fun game that shows off Orbotix’s increasing skill with augmented reality and suggests new possibilities for what games can be.

From a technological standpoint, the Rolling Dead looks like a step up for Orbotix because the game needs to keep track of a lot more. Over the course of the game dozens of zombies emerge. You thin their numbers by shooting them, and at the start it’s fairly easy, but the horde keeps growing. Navigate Sphero through or around it and the app makes sure the zombies change course to follow. You might take out more than a hundred of them, but they eventually overwhelm you with sheer numbers.

Once again there is no marker that limits where Sphero can go. In theory that gives the Rolling Dead a huge and ever-changing battlefield. Following Sphero from room to room and fighting around obstacles adds to the challenge and keeps it interesting. Reach back into your childhood for a dose of imagination and it’s not too hard to turn sofas into buildings or cliffs.

Frustratingly, The Rolling Dead is not as stable as Sharky. The Android version I played on a Motorola Droid Razr HD repeatedly crashed. My experience on the iPad was better, as it didn’t crash as frequently, but it still seemed to quit far too often.

The game will occasionally lose track of Sphero. As long as you play in a large open area, that’s okay, but if you get ambitious and add obstacles or move from room to room, the game has a harder time keeping up.

But think about how remarkable it is to criticize a video game for having trouble following you through your home. Or that you can put obstacles in the field of play, but the game doesn’t do a good enough job of incorporating them.

Finally, remember that less than three years ago, it was a marvel to have a device you could drive around with an iPhone. Oh my god, a robot you control with your phone!!!!

With Sharky the Beaver and the Rolling Dead, Orbotix has two games that are well executed and absorbing, so much so you begin to take their amazing achievements for granted.

It all shows how far Orbotix has come and how tantalizing its vision is. Check back with Xconomy for the story of how the startup has made that leap and how it plans to fulfill its vision.

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  • SpheroLover

    My sphero dropped more then 18 inches!!!! What happens if it falls over the limit?! By the way Orbotix, I LOVE SPHERO!

  • sokre

    Sharky The Beaver for android!???