Sphero robotic ball gets augmented reality, becomes a beaver

Orbotix is back at CES this year with its remote-controlled robotic ball

Sphero the robotic ball made a bit of a splash at CES last year and it's back again with the first augmented reality games built around it.

There shouldn't be anything too compelling about a 3-inch (7.5 cm) illuminated ball that rolls around the floor controlled by a smartphone or tablet. But Orbotix, the company that makes it, has put just enough features into Sphero to make it irresistible to play with, at least for a while.

The ball costs US$130 and there are about 20 free apps for it on Android and iOS devices. The apps change the ball's color via an on-screen palette and allow it to be steered around the floor by tilting the device or pushing buttons on the screen. The ball can stop abruptly and make right angled turns or be steered in long sweeping arcs.

Not much has changed with the ball since it was shown at last year's CES, but it can now serve as a mobile marker for augmented reality applications. Watching the ball on the screen of the tablet, it takes on the appearance of an animated character, "Sharky the Beaver," who can be made to run around the floor or jump up to attention.

In another augmented reality game, "Rolling Dead," players shoot fireballs at a zombie as they run around the floor.

The device has a gyroscope and accelerometer and communicates via Bluetooth. That allows it to work well at up to 50 feet, or 100 feet in the right conditions, said CEO Paul Berberian.

Spereo is waterproof and its polycarbonate shell strong enough that it can be stepped on without breaking, he said. The battery gives an hour of play and is recharged without wires through inductive coupling.

Orbotix's founders wanted to make a toy robot toy they could "just throw on the ground and start using right away," Berberian said.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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