Controlling a small ball with a smartphone is just the tip of the iceberg for entrepreneur Ian Bernstein.
The 27-year-old's Boulder, Colorado-based startup, Orbotix (http://www.orbotix.com), has developed a robotic ball named Sphero that can be rolled around using a smartphone, in much the same manner as remote-controlled cars.
One night I was just playing with my phone and realized that you can text and download all these cool apps and check your email but why can't you control physical devices around you? said Bernstein, who has also used the technology to open garage doors and unlock cars. I thought, I can make this happen and make it easier for other people to do this as well.
Bernstein, who said he's built robots since age 12, came up with the initial idea to move physical objects with a smartphone and sought help from his co-founder and chief software architect, Adam Wilson, to figure out how to do it. Over the summer, the pair graduated from Boulder's startup incubator program TechStars, which also invested $12,000 in the venture for a 6-percent equity stake.
Orbotix has since completed an undisclosed Series A funding round, led by Boulder-based venture capital firm Foundry Group.
Targeting gamers, Orbotix hopes to launch a new sumo-wrestling game using Sphero next month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, barring any technical hurdles. He said Orbotix hopes to start selling the ball sometime next year for under $100.
We make money from both the physical sale of the balls, but we also make money on the application sales, Bernstein said, adding that another possible revenue stream would be from mobile-app companies that build on top of their technology. They can make revenue from those apps and we can take a small percentage.
Another potential use for the technology would be to help physically-challenged people control objects around them more easily, said Bernstein. He added it might be a preferable alternative to carrying a pocket full of keys or a pile of remotes.
We make it very easy for companies to integrate this technology and make their devices mobile-device controlled, Bernstein said, who is working on additional Sphero games such as golf and a cat app that would allow users to play with their pets. Right now we're just focusing on entertainment devices.
Orbotix chief executive Paul Berberian said 70 percent of apps for the Android and iPhone mobile devices are entertainment or game-related. He added that hot consumer electronic devices can sell in the millions of units in the U.S. and internationally. Asia could also be a very strong market for Orbotix because of the huge interest in robotics, he said.
Berberian acknowledges that there are challenges up ahead.
Trying to be in market in 2011 is actually pretty aggressive for a consumer electronics device, Berberian said, noting the seven-employee company won't make any money this year and joked that by the end of 2011 revenues will be something greater than zero and probably less than $20 million.
Berberian said the company must conduct a big marketing push to get the device into major retailers and online stores. Despite the challenges, he remains optimistic. We're changing the way people interact with the real world.