Tucked within the DNA of every boy must be a gene that predisposes them to liking remote-controlled toys. Growing up, I haven’t met a boy who could resist the allure of a remote-controlled car, helicopter or other such thingamajig. It’s the same way that cats and dogs must have a gene that obliges them to interact with said remote-controlled doohickeys. Apparently, this is also the same gene that Sphero is trying to tickle with its remote-controlled robotic ball.
An unassuming sphere that looks like an oversized ping-pong ball, the Sphero has enough technology squeezed into its body to make any geek smile. It’s got a sensor network that features a multi-axis rate gyro and accelerometer. It’s got a rechargeable battery that can be juiced up via induction simply by placing it on top of its charging cradle. Add a wireless link via Bluetooth and all sorts of fancy math and you’ve got the makings of a robotic ball that’s sure to attract the attention of friends, family and any nearby mammal that calls your living quarters home. Is all that worth its $130 price tag? Sounds like it’s time to have a ball (ba-da-bump). Yes, I know, I won’t quit my day job.
The Sphero feels pretty solid and fits within the palm of your hands. In addition to the robotic ball, the package also comes with an adapter that hooks to the aforementioned charging cradle. A blinking blue light means that the Sphero is charging. A solid blue light indicates that the robotic ball is all powered up. Once it’s all juiced up like Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, all you need to do is shake up the ball and the Sphero comes to life. The Sphero is controlled via apps so you’ll need to sync it first with your iOS or Android device of choice. Just go through the Bluetooth pairing procedure that you normally use for, say, your iPhone or Galaxy S III and the ball will be ready in no time. You’ll also need to download compatible apps to be able to control and interact with the ball. The basic Sphero app is free and comes with a virtual dial or joystick for controlling the direction of your robotic buddy. It also allows you to change settings including the color of your Sphero’s lights and the intensity of its movements. There’s also a variety of additional free and paid Sphero apps, including one that allows you trace a pattern for your ball to follow or even a virtual rendition of golf. Operating range from your app controller is about 50 feet and battery life is over an hour.
The Sphero is certainly an attention grabber, particularly for folks who haven’t seen it before. I unpacked this sucker while having family over for the Super Bowl and it elicited plenty of laughs and queries from relatives both young and old. It also proved irresistible to my feisty toy poodle (it's a long story) who couldn’t quite decide whether he should attack the little oddball or run for dear life. As a former cat owner, I can see cats displaying that killer curiosity when faced with the Sphero, too.
Still, this little toy has its share of niggles. For starters, the controls can be a bit tough to get used to. The fact that it doesn’t have an obvious front or back like, say, an RC car means that it’s easy to lose track of which way goes forward or reverse when following it around your house. The novelty and fun factor can also wear off after a while — I believe the amount of time it takes for the charm to start fizzling out is inversely proportional to your age. Then there’s the matter of its price tag, which could be a bit high for many folks.
Overall, I think the Sphero is most fun when enjoyed in the company of others or as part of a challenge — either through apps or physical obstacles you set yourself. I could play with it for 30 minutes with my dog, for example, but typically won’t do so by myself (children might get more mileage from this solo, though). I recommend keeping those things in mind when mulling whether the Sphero would be sufficiently entertaining for you or someone you might be planning to gift it to.
FINAL RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5
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