A Robotic Companion for Your Phone

The start-up Orbotix has created a Bluetooth-controlled robotic ball

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Ian Bernstein: It's a robotic ball that you can control with your iOS or Android device.

Josh Romero: As a start-up, sometimes it's more lucrative to do what's fun than to do what's practical.

Ian Bernstein: One night I was using my iPhone, and I was like, "Why can I download all these cool apps and play games and check my e-mail and text messages, but why can't I control physical objects around me?"

Josh Romero: There have been phone-controlled robots before. But to communicate, they've all used Wi-Fi.

Ian Bernstein: It's kind of cumbersome to try to change your Wi-Fi network, and then you lose your Internet connection. To get your devices on your Wi-Fi, it's a pain, so I wanted to use Bluetooth.

Josh Romero: After Bernstein and his cofounder developed a Bluetooth control system, they realized that they needed something to actually control.

Ian Bernstein: What is the application for this? What can we control with this technology that we've created? It was 3:00 in the morning and I was like, "We just need something supersimple, something you can keep in your backpack, and just pull it out and throw it on the table and it just does something cool. My cofounder Adam was like, "Well, what about a marble?"

Josh Romero: Bernstein had experience building robotic balls in middle school, so the team started designing a prototype right away. In it current form, Sphero has sensors that link its movements to those of the phone. All you need is a quick calibration.

Ian Bernstein: So that sets the coordinate system on the phone to be as same as the ball. And both have gyros and accelerometers, so that's how it syncs the two together. And now, if you push the joystick or tilt the phone away from you, the ball will roll away, or if you tilt it left, the ball will roll left.

Josh Romero: Inside, the mechanics are based on the idea of a robotic hamster.

Ian Bernstein: So think of a little robot: You give it a direction, and it's trying to climb up the side of the ball inside, and that's what makes it roll. 

Josh Romero: An open API means that developers can create additional apps and games for Sphero or multiple Spheros.

Ian Bernstein: Not just the driving app, but you can have a game of Sumo, or tug of war game with multiple phones controlling one ball, or an augmented reality game.

Josh Romero: A remotely controlled ball might seem like a silly first product, but it hasn't hurt Orbotix's ability to raise money— the company just closed a US $5 million Series B round of funding. They still plan on getting Sphero on the market by the end of the year.

Ian Bernstein: It will definitely be under $100. And it will be available this holiday season and late 2011.

Josh Romero: And if that's successful, Orbotix might think about some of their more practical ideas.

Ian Bernstein: We had a lot of other ideas like electronic door locks, and I started my car, opened my garage door, but this was just so much fun.

Josh Romero: For IEEE Spectrum, I'm Josh Romero.

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