"I want to make kids cry, because they're so upset their parents are making them put their toys away in time for bed."
That's how Ian Bernstein desribes his vision for the Sphero, a robotic ball he invented that can be controlled by iOS and Android devices, the first time we talk.
We're in a crowded mid-town Manhattan bar with some other representatives from Orbotix, the robotics company Bernstein co-founded with programmer Adam Wilson through TechStars -- a startup-accelerator that helps inject entrepreneurial acumen into ventures like making robotic balls.
Other writers fiddle with the iPads and iPhones provided by Orbotix PR. But the real action isn't on anyone's lap; it's at our feet. That's where the Sphero balls whizz around, bumping into walls and chair legs as they flash different colors. People who just came to the bar looking for happy hour and a break after work look down in confusion as we struggle with the touch-screen controls, giggling every time the ball disappears under some customers ... by accident, of course.
The Sphero is about the size of a baseball with a Miyazaki-esque blue decal for a face (or logo, depending on your outlook). When held, it has an insecure heft until you shake it and it "wakes up." That's when it starts flashing bright colors as the wheels inside buzz around. After calibrating the device with your phone or tablet's Bluetooth, you can start steering it around.
For a while, that was basically all the ball could do. The device was first released in late 2011 to mixed reviews -- tech writers were impressed with the core concept, but balked at the high price ($129, not to mention the associated hardware requirements of a smartphone/tablet). An article in TechCrunch at the time said that "it would make a great desk or office toy and should be fun for cats (it's clearly fun for 3-year-olds)," but concluded that the ball will only "be really great once Orbotix releases their SDK [software development kit], allowing users more control over these wee fellows."
Software development kits (SDK) are what allow third-party developers to create their own content for a unique piece of hardware. Licensing SDKs, therefore, is not only part of how major console and smartphone developers make most of their money, it's also partly how a developer refines and curates the identity the device itself -- take, for instance, Apple's vigorous policing of its app store as opposed to the massive creative content-dump of Android's open-source app availability. In an effort to stimulate Sphero's industry presence, Orbotix has now released a modified version of its SDK for free to invite as much creative input as possible.
The promise of the ball, like the iPad -- another device that looked cool but did not seem immediately useful when it was initially released -- then lies in the many possibilities embedded in its design.
As engineers and programmers, Bernstein and Wilson emphasize the open-source ethic they built into their machine, making every part of it easily available to professional developers and enthusiasts alike to offer up their best ideas. With the exception of the driver, which Bernstein says is still protected with a number of proprietary algorithms, they "built it from the ground up to be as hackable as possible, both from a software level and hardware level."
Earlier in our conversation, Bernstein admitted that part of the reason he and Wilson applied to TechStars in the first place was their mutual recognition that they were engineers and programmers first, and businessmen a distant, distant second. At a time when Apple and Samsung, two of the largest tech companies in the world, are viciously combatting each other over the size and shape of buttons on their respective products, it's hard to say if this ideal is nobly idealistic or hopelessly naïve.
"We want people to take a hack-saw and open up the Sphero," Bernstein says. "We don't say this, but you could even drive a car with your Sphero."
"The ball is such a blank slate," Bernstein says in a phone interview after our first meeting. From a development standpoint, it keeps the entire surface of the device uniform (compared to, say, a toy car or a robotic pet), which makes it easier to track with a smartphone camera. And even from an artistic standpoint, the ball is amorphous enough to engage with diverse apps. "Both for other developers and for us," Ian says, "it's more of a generalized device."
The new apps integrate the Sphero into a host of traditional videogame mechanics. Sphero Golf turns the smartphone into a virtual golf club -- similar to the Microsoft Kinect, except motion is registered in physical space rather than solely within a videogame. "Exiles" is an "Asteroids"-style shooter, while "Sphero Chromo" is a mixture of the time-based interaction of a popular smartphone like "Temple Run" and the toy Bop-It.
Some more unconventional uses take a greater leap away from the screen into the toy realm. "Sphero pets" lets you torment and entertain your cats with the device. "ColorGrab" has players circle around a Sphero and compete to pick it up as quickly as possibly when it flashes different colors. "We basically thought it was a drinking game," one of the Orbotix representatives told me at the bar, chuckling. "But we can't really sell it that way on the app store."
There are other practical uses for the Sphero that have been discovered through various "hack-a-thon" events Orbotix has hosted to promote the product. Bernstein describes on doctor proposing the Sphero as a cheap alternative to physical therapy for patients that need to exercise rehabilitant joints and limbs with precise motions or speeds. Both times I spoke with him, he impulsively began thinking out loud as he started listing other possibilities - mapping capabilities, pairing it with music, having better recognition built into each robot for Spheros to detect and interact with one another on a deeper level.
Most of the Sphero's charm still comes from the power of these ideas rather than the apps themselves. But at the same time, Orbotix's essential point in developing the Sphero is to make people more comfortable with the technology we already surround ourselves with.
Right now, Bernstein sounds most interested in pushing forward with the game's mixed reality systems. Another host of apps such as "Sphero Horse" are essentially virtual caretaking activities integrated. The difference between them and any number of other virtual pets ranging from the classic "Digimon" digital toys to new apps like "My Horse" (a game where you trot a horse around a stable, petting and feeding it to earn points that keep the animal happy) is the connection to a real-world device.
Which brings Ian back to his original goal: learning what makes users tick, or how to make children cry. One of the last things he tells me about is plans to integrate the ball into more robust forms of console gaming to follow in the tradition set by the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect. Anything Orbotix does, though, "needs to take advantage of being in the real world, being interactive. When it runs underneath the couch, it has to mean something."
Anything, he says, "to make it seem more alive."