Sphero Shipped - Now What?
23 Dec 2011
After 17 months we finally shipped our first Spheros and the reviews are coming in.
In a nutshell every one is asking, "What's next?"
The answer is - lots of apps. Because frankly if all Sphero does is drive - it's cool technology but may not be worth the money for the average consumer.
Most see Sphero as a ball - we see Sphero as a pretty darn accurate 6-axis IMU in the shape of an orb that can move under its own power in a watertight shell and communicate its position in real time to your smart phone while using its on board computer to process instructions to make decisions about how to behave - all while sustaining violent collisions.
Don't get me wrong - driving a ball is a ton of fun - especially if you try to master challenging situations like driving blindly into a room and then navigate out without looking at Sphero or driving super slow on a table top.
But the things that excite us go beyond what you see today. Here is how we look at the world.
The apps in this category are all about moving Sphero across the floor. But unlike simple RC devices - Sphero is a "fly-by-wire" type device. Meaning you really are never controlling Sphero's motors directly from your phone - Sphero is a completely unstable platform and every drive command you send needs to be interpreted by the control system. This allows for some very interesting types of behavior. Programmatically we can adjust the physics of Sphero - that is why when you get a new firmware update the behavior can be dramatic. Folks on Christmas morning are going to treated with a new firmware load -the driving behavior will improve noticeably for those users that choose to update.
For example one app on the drawing board is Curling - like the winter Olympic sport that everyone can't help watching but no one understands why using a broom is an Olympic sport. Imagine one person pushes the stone (Sphero) sliding towards the house (score zone) while another user swipes with their phone to sweep a path to alter its direction. We can make the person sliding the stone to use either their phone (like a Wii mote) OR read the momentum of the ball as the user literally bowls it and match the speed dynamically and simulate the surface friction of ice. While the ball is moving we can then alter its direction based on what another player is doing on his device.
That is one idea - we have others like driving your sphero around your house - watching his colors change to discover hidden treasures - maybe something is under the couch or by the coffee table? When we know the position of Sphero (right now we use dead reckoning) we can create a crude map of where you have travelled. Or something simpler - how about taking the classic snake game and turing it into a real world version across your house.
What many people don't understand is Sphero can also be used as a controller or held as part of game play. We can detect Sphero's position in your hand. More specifically we can detect if you are tilting Sphero forward, back, left, right, or twist left, twist right (yaw, pitch and roll) - to within a half a degree. We can also detect vibration, vertical and horizontal acceleration, shaking, and varying degrees of collision (coming very soon). Hmmm - what does that mean? Well we will be showing off two apps at CES where you pick up Sphero and maneuver him in your hand to play a game on your phone. One game is like Galaga where you navigate your Sphero on screen by holding and tilting Sphero in your hands. At first you think a 3D joystick is silly for an iPhone - but once you play you quickly realize that you can't get that type of control without an external device. The other app is one where you have to match colors on your Sphero as your phone prompts you through faster and faster challenges.
These are the simple apps - imagine a more complicated app like Sphero becoming a paranormal detector that you move around your house to find evil spirits - your phone displays the readings and Sphero is the sensor (like a geiger counter). Your goal is to remove the poltergeist to protect your loved ones. Sphero will be able to know where you've been and remember where the ghosts are hiding. OK that game play is cool, totally possible, but requires a lot of creative development.
Augmented Reality Games
People use the term augmented reality a lot these days (AR) but AR is just a subset of mixed reality - albeit the hardest type of a mixed reality experience to create. In the AR world tracking objects is really important so you know where to put the virtual objects and when to have them interact with the real objects. Object tracking in 3D space is super hard - but one of the easiest things to track is a uniform sphere that you can color programmatically to identify it in your field of view. Sphero is the perfect object to track. A ton of software needs to be created before you see some amazing Sphero AR games but we are working on things. The first type of AR games will be target type apps - imagine our Golf app but the hold is an AR overlay and the phone knows when Sphero goes in the virtual hole. Other apps are where the virtual objects can control Sphero. One idea is a Breakout type game where Sphero is moving around in the real world knocking down bricks in a virtual wall and bouncing off the virtual wall until he creates a hole to break through. We'll be demoing some early AR stuff at CES in January.
Sphero, more than anything, is a blank slate. We put just as much effort into our SDK as we did into our hardware. There is no way we are going to build every app for Sphero - we need developers to hop on board an let their imaginations go wild. Sphero does have limits - some we are working on to improve others are constants like gravity (we can't make Sphero levitate). So if you see a ball - great - if you see more - better. We see more and we firmly believe that in the years ahead you'll be playing all sorts of games that live part in the real world - part in the virtual.