Sphero Review: A fun robotic toy that has to yet to hit its stride

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At this year's E3, we were introduced to a clever new iPhone and Android peripheral called the Sphero. Developed by Orbotix, Sphero is a robotic ball that can be controlled by using apps on your iPhone, iPad or Android device, and can also be used as a new kind of controller.

We had a chance to spend an extended period of time with Sphero after the Electronic Entertainment Expo had come and gone, and while the device is mostly impressive, we're not sure it's a must-have for even the most hardcore of iPhone or Android enthusiasts. In terms of its technical specs, the baseball-sized Sphero comes equipped with color-changing LED lights, a gyroscope, accelerometer, polymer batteries that can be recharged inductively via the included charge cradle, and Bluetooth functionality throughout. All of this comes in a $130 package that's now available to purchase online or in select Brookstone locations.

Sphero is a deceptively heavy device, that comes with a subtle (but constant) audible tick even when it isn't moving, and any movement of the sphere causes the internal components to automatically rotate to an upright position. During our demo at E3, we were told that the Sphero is waterproof (it apparently floats), and that even a shotgun blast wasn't enough to ruin the internal workings (only the outer casing was damaged). Still, the plastic feels rather cheap, as though the slightest of pressure will crack the material (to be fair, it's survived everything we've thrown at it so far). Additionally, there's a tiny gap in between the two pieces of plastic that comprise the outer casing that allows for dirt or debris to become lodged within if you're not using Sphero on an absolutely clean surface.

While the Sphero itself is an incredibly intelligent device, it's nothing without apps, which is where a selection of introductory applications comes in, each introducing you to a different ability within this tiny robotic ball.


Sphero

The Sphero application is a hub of information concerning the Sphero as an overall product, allowing you to access firmware updates, discover new apps that are compatible with the device as they are released, and even set up your Sphero for the first time out of the box. The uses for the basic Sphero app are incredibly limited, with other apps serving more specific purposes in terms of controlling your new toy.

Sphero Drive

The Sphero Drive app allows you to play with the Sphero as you would a remote controlled car. You'll orient the Sphero by placing two fingers on the screen and rotating them until the Sphero's lone blue dot faces your location, and can then use the included control options to "drive" the Sphero around any flat surface. There are boost buttons on either side of the actual control pad, allowing you to increase the speed of the Sphero for a few seconds (which can help it clear some small obstacles, like areas in your home where hardwood might meet carpet, as an example), and this setup works well for either right or left-handed users. It can be a bit difficult to control Sphero from a single location, as losing sight of the device makes it incredibly difficult to retrieve unless you physically walk over to the Sphero and pick it up. In this way, you'll need to be just as mobile as Sphero is, and of course, the larger the open area, the more fun you can ultimately have with this particular app.

Sphero MacroLab

Most users won't find a need to download this particular app, as it deals with the intricacies of the Sphero's abilities. You can tweak the Sphero to "drive" on specific patterns automatically, can enter commands for it to change colors (that can be customized to your liking in terms of the actual shade and order in which the color is displayed), and can time actions to take place on a delayed timer. The Sphero responds well to all of these commands, but the app itself is fairly unintuitive to someone unfamiliar with macros.

Sphero Golf


Sphero Golf is technically a game, but it's a slow moving one. You'll need to create some sort of "hole" within your environment, using a cup, hat or other object, and can then orient your Sphero to face the hole (using the same two-fingered layout seen in Sphero Drive and most other compatible apps). You can choose from flick or swing controls, with flick simply asking you to flick your finger on the screen to "hit" the Sphero with your imaginary golf club. Swing, then, allows you to swing your device to "hit" the Sphero, achieving the same effect. You'll need to orient the Sphero before each and every stroke, and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it ensures accuracy of its next movement, it is a bit of a tedious setup.

SpheroCam

If you've got a cat, dog, unsuspecting family member or friend that you wish to introduce Sphero to, the SpheroCam app allows you to drive your Sphero around the environment just as in the Sphero Drive app, but will allow you to film videos or take pictures while doing it to capture passer-by reactions. The video and picture quality seems to take a hit when using this app (as you can see in the blurry iPhone 4S photo below), but the control joystick is moved to the bottom right corner of the screen to allow you to actually view what you're filming / photographing as you're driving the Sphero around.

Sphero Draw N' Drive

Similar to the regular Sphero Drive app, Sphero Draw N' Drive allows you to draw shapes (big or small) on a grid, only to see the Sphero follow the path you've created within the real world. Draw a square and Sphero will trace out those four sides on your floor or table, but unless your play area is quite large, you'll need to stick with drawing tiny shapes. There's a novelty factor here, as you can freely change the Sphero's LED color, even as it moves along its drawn path, but this definitely isn't a game, or even an app with longevity.

Sphero Chromo

The only free app that can be considered a true game, Sphero Chromo offers multiple game modes revolving around the same premise: holding the Sphero in your hand, you'll tilt the sphere in six different directions (three forwards and three backwards towards your body) to move a small cursor around the screen in an effort to match a color currently being displayed in the middle of the screen. One of these modes is a take on Simon Says, as colors will be displayed and you'll then need to tilt the Sphero to move the cursor to the matching pattern of colors on your iPhone or iPad.

Control within Sphero Chromo sees the ball glowing bright white and a large blue dot appearing on one side. This blue dot shows you where to place your thumb as you grip the Sphero, but unfortunately, even with this setup, it can be more than a bit difficult to rotate the device far enough backwards to reach the purple and green spaces, as seen below.


Other gameplay modes see you being timed to simply move the cursor to a specific color without a pattern. You'll earn points for each match you successfully make, and streaks of correct movements will help you unlock additional modes. If you're having trouble with the titling mechanic, there's also a "Spin" mode that allows you to place the Sphero on a flat service and then rotate the orb clockwise or counter-clockwise to match colors in a similar fashion. Overall, any of these control schemes only work for so long, as it's incredibly easy for your thumb to slip off of the blue orientation circle or for the slick surface of the Sphero to cause it slide around on a tabletop without a constantly firm grip.

As of this writing, there are just nine apps available on iOS that are compatible with Sphero, and seven of those are glorified tech demos released by Orbotix itself. This lack of compatible experiences is perhaps Sphero's biggest problem, as the high price tag could be better explained if that purchase price included access to dozens of apps (or more). As it stands, the two third party apps are Shapesynth ($1.99) and Last Fish ($0.99). Shapesynth is a music app, allowing you to use the Sphero to draw shapes on a virtual synthesizer, while Last Fish is a more traditional game that can be played with or without the Sphero as a controller.

We purchased Last Fish to test out the true capabilities of the Sphero as an iOS controller, and were mostly impressed. The game itself asks you to control a glowing white fish in a screen of darkness, with each level asking you to complete a task concerning glowing white balls or rings of light while avoiding dark spheres. As with the Sphero Chromo app, Last Fish causes the Sphero to glow bright white with the blue orientation circle serving as a marker for placing your thumb. Holding the device in your right or left hand, you'll tilt Sphero to control the movements of the fish. Larger, sweeping motions cause the fish to swim faster and farther, and vice versa. It becomes difficult to hold the fish in one place while using Sphero as a controller, but I admittedly preferred this control scheme better than simply tilting my iPhone to control the fish otherwise.

If you're an Android gamer, you'll have access to two other third-party apps (the above two options aren't on Google Play). The first, Sphero Horse, requires two Spheros to play (and you thought a $60 console game was expensive), while the other, Assistive Helmet Drive, requires a special modified helmet to use, and only lets you drive and change the colors of the Sphero by tilting your head.

The lack of supported apps doesn't speak negatively to the quality of the Sphero, as the device has incredible promise and mostly works as designed. If anything, the problems that we had with Sphero were more so in the designs of the few apps that are available, and not in the device's functionality itself. A piece of hardware is really only great when supported by a slew of equally entertaining, useful software, and Sphero unfortunately doesn't have that yet. It could be that developers are weary of creating apps for such an expensive toy, which of course limits the size of the audience they're developing for, but if apps aren't developed, will the Sphero ever really take off? We'll have to wait and see.

Have you gotten your hands on a Sphero? Would you spend the full $130 asking price for a Sphero? What's a reasonable price for the Sphero in your mind? Sound off in the comments!
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