Controlling the Ball 

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Adding to the functionality of your smartphone and tablet, as if these devices did not have enough control over our every day lives, is a product developed by the US company Orbotix. This product, appropriate named Sphero, is a ball which can be controlled and also act, in certain circumstances, as a controller itself. In order to make full use of Sphero, Orbotix has developed a number of free apps for both the iOS and Android platforms that allow your smartphone and/or tablet to communicate with this “magic” ball.

sphero mobile phone game system
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Constructed of a tough polycarbonate material, the Sphero has a diameter of 74mm and is opaque enough so that a multitude of colours and special effects can add to the visual appeal of the device.  Within the ball’s shell, Orbotix has packed an accelerometer, multi-axis gyroscope, LED lights, compass, various motors, lithium polymer battery, and support for Bluetooth – I wish I could pack a suitcase as efficiently. 

Charging the Sphero device is carried out by conduction as you place the device in the supplied cradle with a choice of plugs for use with different power systems.  Fortunately the Sphero comes powered with enough juice so that you can start to use it almost immediately.  A full recharge can take around three hours and this will give you about an hour of play time which hardly seems a fair exchange of time and energy.

I would recommend downloading the main Sphero app for your particular platform before branching out with the numerous other available apps.  This main app will allow you to get use to controlling the ball which does give the appearance, especially when I am supposed to be in charge, of having a mind of its own and sometimes wandering off in a totally random direction.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves slightly so lets backtrack a little.

You will need to pair your fully charged Sphero, via Bluetooth, with your smartphone or tablet.  To make sure your Sphero is fully awake and responsive, you will need to give it a good shake until it starts to protest by flashing at you.  I wasn’t expecting any problems with regards pairing and so was surprised when my Google Nexus tablet struggled to make the necessary contact.  Messages appeared asking me to check that the Sphero device was displaying a certain number (259372 was one example), which it wasn’t, and then the Google Nexus spent many minutes attempting to pair.  In fact it was so slow that I switched to my Motorola Razri smartphone which handled the pairing process without any problems.  Eventually my tablet made the necessary contact.

The Sphero app leads you through a brief checking routine to ensure your ball behaves itself before leaving you with an interface to drive your ball over various surfaces, including water, and change colour.  My cat was initially interested in this strange flashing object but quickly decided his food dish and sleep time was more appealing.  Your patience will probably have a stronger resistance, I know mine did, before you decide to go online and download some of the more interesting apps that allow various activities to be carried out using your Sphero.

Some of these apps are suitable for a single payer while others, such as “Pass the Sphero” can require up to six players.  You can indulge, free-of-charge, in a Nyan Cat Space Party, Doodle Grub, Sphero Cam, Zombie Rollers or Sphero Golf 2.0 to mention just some.  Plus there are at least a couple of apps that allow you to program your ball.

As mentioned earlier, the Sphero can become the controller rather than the controlled.  In such cases you need to hold the ball as you steer an on-screen character passed obstructions while destroying various items to earn points.  Unlike a normal legacy game controller, the Sphero does require very careful handling.  This is not due to the fact that you might damage the Sphero, it does have a sturdy appearance although you are advised not to drop it on a hard surface or throw it in frustration, but because it is highly sensitive with the control it offers.  A slight shift in the grip could cause your Sphero controlled character to hug the side of the screen and reject your efforts to move it.

The Sphero is not a toy, well actually it is but not one that you will immediately master if ever.  It can be amusing and frustrating in equal measures.  Some will have the perseverance to perform weird and “wonderful” things with the device but I suspect many will opt to relegate this device to a drawer where it can be forgotten about.  This would be a pity especially when you have already handed over the asking price of £100 for this product.  I can not shake the feeling that the Sphero could be regarded as a gimmick with a short shelf life.  But then I could be wrong.

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