CES 2014: Sphero 2B Robot Is Fast, Funky, and Fun

Orbotix breaks its own spherical mold with the Sphero 2B, a faster, cheaper, and more customizable robotic toy

2 min read
CES 2014: Sphero 2B Robot Is Fast, Funky, and Fun
Photo: Orbotix

We know and love Orbotix for their magical Sphero robotic balls, which can roll themselves around without any external moving parts. It seems like just a few months ago (barely five months) that we met the second generation of their round robot, so we were more than a little bit surprised that when at CES this week, Orbotix decided to introduce a completely new, and completely different, rolling robotic toy: the Sphero 2B.

The big change on the Sphero 2B is the most obvious one: the thing's got wheels. Whereas the original Spheros use drive systems completely contained inside their sealed shells, the 2B is more like a traditional remote-controlled car. This makes it less waterproof, but a heck of a lot faster: controlled with your iOS or Android device over Bluetooth low energy, the 2B can drive at over 5 meters per second (have fun trying to keep up with it), which is quick enough to get about a meter of air if you launch it off of a jump. And the more traditional steering system makes it a bit easier to drive than a round Sphero, ensuring that when you do go off of a jump, it's intentional.

What might be most interesting to us about the 2B is the fact that it's been designed from the ground up to be modular and customizable. The shell, wheels, treads, and wheel hubs can all be swapped out, so you can give the robot knobbly off-road tires for traction, or slick tires for speed. We're expecting to see a bunch of different options show up from Orbotix, and even more options to show up from users who want to take a crack at making their robots better.

The other new piece of hardware in the Sphero 2B is an infrared cannon of sorts, along with infrared sensors, contained in the body of the robot. The first application for these is going to be for robot battles, where you can chase another Sphero 2B around, "shooting" at it with infrared light (which looks similar to the battle mode in the robotic car racing game Anki Drive). You'll also be able to pick up a set of infrared beacons, allowing you to create invisible light fences that you can program your 2B to stay within.

Like the original Spheros, the 2B is open and programmable, and we're looking forward to what new kinds of programmability (and even autonomy) users might be able to leverage with the infrared beacons. You can expect to see the Sphero 2B up for sale by fall of 2014, for significantly less money than its brethren at under $100.

[ Orbotix ]

For more from CES, check out our complete coverage.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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