My little buddy, the robotic ball controlled by your smartphone named Sphero, has shipped and you can order a Sphero now! Having watched Sphero come to life over the past 17 months, starting as a seed of an idea in the heads of two mad geniuses (Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson) has been awesome.
I remember seeing Ian and Adam’s video application to TechStars for the Boulder 2010 program (at the time the company was called Gearbox). There were a lot of questions on the selection committee because it wasn’t a typical software thing. “These guys are hardware hackers – will we have good mentors for them?” was one of the questions asked. “Fuck yeah” I said. “I’ll be one of their lead mentors. I love robots.”
In my first mentor meeting with Ian and Adam, they showed me three ideas. One was an iPhone controlled door lock. One was something else that was iPhone controlled but was so stupid I can’t remember what it was. One was a ball that you could control with your smartphone. As they described idea #1, they told me about the mentors who had said “this could be a good business.” As they described idea #2, I started thinking to myself “where is the passion in these guys that I saw in the video?” When they got to the ball, I remember Adam (or was it Ian) saying something like “our third idea is a remote control ball – how cool is that?” We talked about it for a minute or two and with each passing second they became more animated. Adam literally stood up and was gesturing around as he tried to show me what it would be like to use it.
I looked quietly at each of them and said “which idea do you love?” In unison, they responded with “the ball.” Do you love any of the other ideas? Silence. Then I asked “so why is there even a choice in your mind?” One of them responded with “well – some of the people we’ve talked to thought the ball was a stupid idea and there was no market for it.” I responded with “Fuck that – do what you love.”
Paul Berberian, one of their mentors during TechStars, shared the same enthusiasm. About halfway through the program Ian, Adam, and Paul started to talk about teaming up – by the end of TechStars Paul had joined as the CEO. I’ve worked with Paul since he co-founded Raindance Communications in 1997 and was delighted to quickly lead a seed financing for Orbotix.
17 months later we have the world’s first robotic ball controlled by a smartphone. The early reviews are starting to come in and they are all in the “wow this is cool I wish there were more apps” category.
TechCrunch on Sphero: “As a technological artifact, the ball is incredible. When’s the last time you’ve seen a small, self-propelled ball with built-in gyroscope, accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, and compass? You could put a little explosive in these and they could be a Bond villain.”
CNET on Sphero: “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.”
Engaget on Sphero: “That said, Sphero is a great toy to have if you’ve got any furry friends — this reporter spent a good thirty minutes making Sphero chase a friend’s dog, and it seems the pup had even more fun with it than his human friends. We should also note Sphero’s worth as a conversation starter, as most folks haven’t seen anything like it, and are keen to take it for a spin.”
I have two dogs and they love the Sphero. So far I haven’t gotten remotely bored playing around with them with it. I’ve played a few of the upcoming Sphero apps, including a Mixed Reality Pong game, using Sphero to control your phone (3D joystick like behavior), movement tracking, and Wii like games where the ball replaces the Wii mote. The potential of apps built to incorporate a Sphero just blows my mind.
In addition to shipping Sphero, Orbotix also released their SDK and the first five Sphero apps. The short term goal is to make it easy for anyone to develop apps for Sphero since – even though the Orbotix team is crazy smart and creative, we know that the breakthrough apps will come from other people.
I love the stuff I invest in. It’s magical to me that the idea Ian and Adam had 17 months ago is now a product with a full fledged software ecosystem around it. Orbotix is a long way from being a successful company, but shipping Sphero is a huge step in their journey.
If you love robots, want to hack on a robotic ball, have a cat, have a kid, or just want to play around with an amazing new toy at its very early stages, order your Sphero today. Yes, there’s a backlog so you won’t get it in time for Christmas, but hopefully they’ll be fully caught up by January.