It's such a fine line between stupid and clever.
That's a quote from the movie "This is Spinal Tap," but it could just as well apply to the Sphero, a new high-tech, $130 robotic ball that's well, either pretty stupid or pretty clever, depending on how you look at it. (We first encountered Sphero at CES 2011.)
Let's start with the clever. The concept of wirelessly controlling a ball and steering it around with your smartphone is certainly intriguing, and people's initial reaction to seeing Sphero in action is usually a mix of curiosity and a bit of awe. "Wow, that's cool," is a frequent observation.
The ball connects via Bluetooth to your Android or iOS-enabled mobile device. It's easy to set up and get going. At launch there are a handful of apps available that allow you to drive it around and even play a few games with it, including a variation of golf. Though we didn't have a chance to test it yet, you'll be able to upload "scores," as well as images and videos of your Sphero in action to Sphero World, the company's social-media play.
You can steer a couple of ways. There's the standard virtual joystick method but I preferred the tilt mode that allows you to turn and tilt your device to drive. You can change Sphero's color and it moves along at a fairly good clip, especially when you engage the boost button. As for battery life, it gets about an hour of drive time before you have to charge it using the included induction charger and stand.
The Sphero is hard to judge as a single unit because it seems like it would be more fun to interact with other Spheros and compete in races or other games. You can certainly have some fun playing with your Sphero alone, especially if you have a cat to tease, but it would seem to lose some of its novelty fairly quickly if it didn't have any friends to play with.
There are some other downsides to the product. It does take some practice to learn to steer it properly and it may frustrate some people who are short on patience. It's also not terribly rugged. It's not designed to be dropped from any higher than a few feet. You can't kick it around. And while it is waterproof, it's really a land-only vehicle.
In the end, it's Sphero's shape that may be both its strength and its weakness, for it's hard to ignore the fact that this is a ball--and it's not terribly exciting to see a ball roll around on its own after a while, even one that's interactive and lights up. Of course, it's something of a technological feat to remotely put a ball in motion, and kudos to Orbotix for doing that and coming up with an app tie-in strategy that should help keep things interesting moving forward.
All that's pretty clever. Or maybe it's stupid. It is such a fine line.
Note: While Sphero is now technically "available," Orbotix has faced shipping constraints and only a select number of folks who preordered the product are receiving it this week. More units will ship out in January to those who preorder them.