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Hands-on with Sphero, and a look inside the robotic ball

I’m all about little robots. That is to say, any robot that is small enough that I know for a fact I won’t lose to in a fight. (You know, in case the whole Skynet thing happens.) As long as the robots are small, and as long as they do some neat tricks, I’m pretty happy with them. Some of them clean my floors, some of them open doors, and some of them connect to your Android or iOS device for pure amusement. One robot does that really well, and is finally coming to stores soon. We’ve written about Sphero before, but the Orbotix team stopped by Geek HQ this week and showed off the latest version of their little robotic ball of fun.

My favorite thing about Sphero is that it could have been this really small, cheap thing that was good for a few laughs and before it was put back on the shelf. Instead, the Orbotix team has created a nearly open source (I’ll explain later) platform for a robotic ball capable of entertaining kids, adults, adult kids, cats, and really anybody else for quite awhile. Designed to take a beating, and even records the details of the beating so you can’t drive the Sphero off the side of a building and go back and demand a warranty replacement, this robot is fully thought out product (as it should be for $129).

It all starts with a little robot in a ball

What happens when you put a couple of robotics engineers in a room and tell them to have fun? Sphero. The Orbotix team is comprised of some really bright engineers who have taken their combined knowledge and turned it into the re-invention of the two-wheeled gyroscopic toy. The insides of the Sphero ball contain a pair of batteries, the wheels to drive the ball, an arm to keep the wheels on the ground, and an army of chips, sensors, and wires to help control and drive the ball.

Driven by Bluetooth, Sphero has a 1-inch antennae inside instead of a printed antennae seen in most Bluetooth devices. As a result, Sphero is capable of being controlled by a smartphone and ranges exceeding 60-75 feet with no signs of signal loss or interruption. In our test, Sphero was driven down a long hallways filled with those pesky frequency-absorbing humans, and the ball continued to do as it was told.

Sphero Software

Sphero was built from the ground up on their own software, which has grown into a full and comprehensive SDK. Every time you start a Sphero, it uses your smartphone to grab the latest Firmware from Orbotix, so it gets better as you use it. Because Sphero works with both iOS and Android, Sphero is not completely open source to comply with Apple’s rules, but the Orbotix team assures me that is is a close to open source as possible under the restrictions they have been given.

Some of the features included in the SDK are the ability to post scores of a game to the Orbotix leaderboard, communicate across iOS and Android inside apps (cross platform gaming, for example), and even connecting to multiple Sphero balls simultaneously (Android only). This SDK is available to anyone for free, and all of the apps made by the Sphero team were done using the SDK.

Price? Availability?

Coming out of the gate sometime before Christmas, Sphero will start at $129. If you head to you can pre-order one of these neat little robots today. Sphero currently works with all iOS devices and Android phones, with a whole suite of apps on the way to help you have fun with your ball.

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