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

Xconomy Boulder/Denver — 

When I first learned about Orbotix and its plan to build the first robot you could control with a smartphone or tablet, my reaction could pretty much be summed up as this: Shut up and take my money!!!

That was less than three years ago. Orbotix, which is based in Boulder, CO, had just graduated from the TechStars startup accelerator. At that point, it had a prototype for what would become Sphero. Within its first year, Orbotix would raise more than $6 million in venture capital.

Sphero was sure to be a hit, I thought. It seemed so self-evident I was mildly shocked when someone didn’t get it—it’s a robot you control with your iPhone!

Yeah, but what does it do? they’d ask.

Well, you drive it around stuff, like this…

…and there will be games, where you drive it around…other stuff…and they say you’ll be able to hack it…

Fortunately, the team at Orbotix had a better, far more ambitious answer. After they mastered the challenge of designing, building, and mass producing what’s one of the most advanced gadgets ever made for the consumer market, Sphero would become a platform for games that would make use of augmented reality.

In that vision, players would control Sphero as it rolled around in the real world, while the app would create a game in the digital world. Sphero would dash down hallways and around corners, while on screen zombies would chase it. You could turn your living room or patio into the setting for a video game.

Since Sphero’s release, I’ve been playing with it on and off, especially over the past six weeks. Orbotix and third-party developers have released about 20 games or apps for it. I’ve tested most of them, focusing on The Rolling Dead and Sharky the Beaver, the company’s latest two releases.

Many of the games in Sphero’s lineup are fun, catchy, and challenging. Over the years they’ve shown a steady increase in quality and ambition, culminating in the most recent releases.

That’s why even though Sphero still occasionally feels like a work in progress, it does a great job of illustrating Orbotix’s vision and the company’s promise. Orbotix wants to make Sphero one of the first products to successfully blend the digital world with the real and help usher in the era of augmented reality gaming. It seems to be on its way.

First, an introduction is appropriate.

Sphero’s tagline is “Part Ball, Part Robot, All Fun.” While the last part of the statement will depend on the user, the first two-thirds are a good place to start.

Sphero is about the size and weight of a baseball. You can even throw it against a wall and it will survive unscathed, as Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian demonstrated when I visited the Orbotix headquarters in Boulder in May. (While Sphero is surprisingly rugged, it should be noted that the manual discourages throwing Sphero or dropping it on hard surfaces or from higher than 18 inches. Also, it’s not for chewing, either by people, dogs, or zombies.)

Sphero’s hard plastic shell is packed with an accelerometer, antenna, battery, circuit board, gyroscope, LED light, motor, and more. It connects to iOS or Android devices via Bluetooth and has a range of about 50 feet. Orbotix says its top speed is 3 feet per second.

Orbotix also has made Sphero smart and hackable. The company has released a software development kit so owners and enthusiasts can create apps and try to one-up each other at hackathons and online. It also has produced Sphero MacroLab, an app that lets non-programmers teach Sphero to do simple tricks or run through pretty complicated patterns.

Sphero has attracted a lot of attention from the tech press and the gadget-obsessed, and rightly so. It’s one of the most advanced robots a consumer can buy, at least for the $129.99 it costs online.

But as impressive as Sphero is from an engineering standpoint, it’s fair to wonder if it has the staying power to justify the cost. It certainly gets the attention of the 10-year-old inside every technophile, but would it be worth a 10-year-old’s allowance money?

To be honest, for the first year or so Sphero was on the market, the answer might have been no. Sphero has a wow factor, and if you take it out in public it’s a nice conversation starter.

Early games like Sphero Golf showed Sphero had potential as a game platform. The best and most complicated game was “Exile,” a shoot ’em up that uses Sphero as a spaceship’s controller; players hold Sphero in their hand and tilt it subtly to steer the ship through space as it tries to destroy enemies. It’s fun and a well-designed game, especially if you have a light touch.

The possibilities to hack and program Sphero could keep enthusiasts busy and happy, but eventually the novelty factor wears off for less ardent fans. It wasn’t hard to imagine Sphero languishing on less sophisticated buyers’ shelves next to their quadricopters.

But from the start, Orbotix has made clear its ambition goes beyond making the next must-have gadget that everyone wants for Christmas but will forget by Easter. 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!???