Sphero is a robotic ball that you can drive around with your smartphone. It's a lot fun, and we've been especially impressed with the way that you can get down into its software and mess with it, changing it from a relatively simple remote controlled toy into a real autonomous robot. Heck, you can even control it with ROS.
Today, Orbotix is introducing the Sphero 2.0, packed with new hardware that makes it faster, smarter, faster, brighter, and faster than ever. And did we mention it's faster? Because it's definitely faster.
A quick rundown on the Sphero if you're not familiar: it's a roughly softball-sized plastic sphere with a clever system inside that it uses to drive itself around without having to rely on any external motors or controls. It kinda looks a little bit like magic, but it helps to think of it just like there's a little remote control car in there that drives, spinning the outside shell to move. Your interface with Sphero through the Bluetooth connection on your smartphone, and it's got a nifty little induction charging cradle to keep it powered.
The new Sphero (officially called Sphero 2.0) looks much the same as the original one, largely because it kind of has to be a sphere to work, limiting external design changes. It's not totally featureless, and includes some subtle and rather pleasing textured lines across its surface. The real changes are inside, in both hardware and software.
The flagship new feature, and we may have subtly alluded to this, is that Sphero 2.0 is 2.0x as fast as Sphero 1.0. The original Sphero was lively enough, but this new one is intimidatingly fast, with a maximum speed of well over two meters per second.
Inside, there's a bigger and more powerful motor, fancy new firmware, and the center of gravity has been lowered substantially. Realistically, when you're starting out, this makes the robot nearly uncontrollable, which is why when you start with Sphero out of the box, the speed is cranked down a whole bunch.
Unlocking Sphero's top speed involves progressing through a series of driving challenges, which sounds annoying, except that you really do need the practice before you're qualified to unleash that full two meters per second anyway. Once you're there, however, you can send Sphero off of jumps and stuff (included in the box) and it actually manages to catch a respectable amount of air.
Sphero's biggest issue when it comes to driving is that by definition it doesn't have a lot of traction, so it has issues accelerating and steering on wood and tile floors. Also, no matter how talented of a driver you are, you're gonna crash into things. Badly. Over and over. Orbotix is selling a "nubby cover," which is a rubber jacket of sorts that you can tuck Sphero into, giving it additional traction and some shock absorbing capabilities. It also makes it easier to drive Sphero on water, because you can do that: it's waterproof.
The other hardware update on Sphero 2.0 is a new set of RGB LEDs that makes it extra-glowy. It's three times brighter (think daylight visible), and you can set them to any color you like using an app. It's not only pretty, but also has lots of interaction potential.
Potential, really, is what we like most about Sphero. Because you can record and play back macros, and then look at the code that those macros create and modify it, Sphero provides a great way to get introduced to simple programming. And with ROS integration, you can go on to get as complicated as you want. But even if you forget all that, it's still a fun little toy, and the 25 apps and games that it comes with should help keep it interesting long-term.
Sphero 2.0 will run you $130, with the original dropping to $109. You can also find the new ones at Apple stores, with an exclusive partially transparent shell that exposes the mechanical gadgetry inside:
[ Sphero ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.