Gyroscope-Guided Gigglefest By Sphero

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The Sphero 2.0 is not the most self-evidently practical gadget ever. This new, $129.99 plastic ball hides a gyroscope, accelerometer and a set of motors that roll itself around under the control of a mobile app.

Oh, and it lights up in different colors.

But if this self-propelled cybernetic sphere from Boulder, Colo.-based Orbotix – a faster, brighter version of a model shipped in 2011 – doesn’t do anything particularly useful out of the box, it can certainly add a little robotic levity to your life.

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First there’s the challenge of driving a Sphero. Trying to steer a device without an obvious front or back, and which can also spin freely through all its axes, is a recipe for disorientation.

I needed practice (read: time spent chuckling at my inability to keep a Sphero 2.0 from getting stuck in one corner or another) before I realized the importance of constantly checking its equivalent of a boat’s tiller. That’s the feature in Sphero-driving apps that illuminates its blue taillight and lets you spin it in place to the desired direction.

(I suppose that’s what it’s like to learn to drive a tank.)

Once you’ve ascertained the fore and aft ends of a Sphero, it’s not too hard to drive one around if you don’t stress about precise navigation. A Sphero 2.0 loaned by the company rolled smoothly over various flooring types without a problem, but getting over thresholds or onto thick rugs required a rolling start.

Its box included a couple of plastic ramps, but my errant aim meant the ball only caught some air maybe one time in four.

The Sphero charges cordlessly in a small plastic base, which loses points for requiring a proprietary adapter to plug into a wall instead of charging over any micro-USB cable. It pairs via Bluetooth wireless; the review model had trouble reconnecting to an iPad and an Android phone when woken up, requiring a trip to each device’s Bluetooth settings.

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This gadget is much better with an audience — as Orbotix found when President Obama tried driving a first-generation Sphero during a campaign stop in Boulder. Our three-year-old was fascinated by the thing; she said “come back to me, robot ball!” before chasing it down to grab it. (The way the Sphero’s motors constantly vibrate as you hold it in your hand make it feel weirdly alive, as if it were a round, robotic baby bird.) But our neighbors’ cat was less enthused.

Among the growing variety of Sphero apps, the worst may be the eponymous, just-updated release on iOS and Android. The update takes away some useful control options and adds game mechanics, for instance, hitting too many walls damages your Sphero’s virtual shields to the point that you must stop driving so they can regenerate, that impede learning the finer points of Sphero steering.

Orbotix’s Sphero Drive apps for Android and iOS and Android provide a better introduction and allow you to drive it with either joystick-esque touchscreen controls or by tilting your mobile device left, right, forward and back.

You can try out a large selection of games afterwards. For instance, one lets you play a virtual game of golf with a Sphero. Other titles flip the script by employing a Sphero as an alternate input mechanism to control a phone or tablet. An Etch-O-Matic app challenges you to draw on the screen by turning a Sphero in your hand.

This selection offers a useful reminder of this robotic ball’s potential: For all its silliness, it is, in fact, a machine you can program like any other. And interesting things tend to arise from that scenario.

Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery