Ina Fried

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Phone-Controlled Robot Ball Set to Roll Around CES

There will be a lot of quirky gadgets rolling through Las Vegas as the Consumer Electronics Show this week in addition to all the big-time announcements such as new phones, TVs and tablets.

Among those to keep an eye out for is a little robotic ball from Orbotix, a seven-person start-up from Boulder, Colo.

The company’s lone product, Sphero, is still in the prototype stage but could be indicative of the types of products the world is likely to see more of. Sphero is like a remote-control car, except it’s a baseball-sized sphere. Also, it is controlled from either an iPhone or an Android device.

Although the mechanics of a remote-controlled ball are fairly simple, Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian told Mobilized, it takes some sophisticated controls to operate a ball, which, unlike a car has no real up or down.

“It would have been impossible three years ago to make this work for under thousands of dollars,” Berberian said.

Luckily, sensors have gotten tiny and cheap and today’s smartphones have all the processing power one needs. Sphero communicates with the phone using Bluetooth. Berberian said that Bluetooth has a number of advantages, including the ability to use the cell phone’s Internet connection should developers want to write games that tap into the Web.

Berberian said he can also imagine all manner of augmented reality games that take the rolling ball and turn it into everything from a pony to a race car, depending on the age and interests of the ball’s owner.

First, though, Orbotix must get the product to market. Although prototypes are being shown off at CES, it’s not slated to hit the market until late in 2011. The goal is for it to sell for under $100.

Orbotix has some backing to get there. After getting its start last year in a regional tech incubator, the company landed venture funding from the Foundry Group.

Sphero is not the first phone-controlled object out there. An iPhone-controlled helicopter made the rounds at a past CES and a model is now on the market.

However, the ball is designed as a little rolling robotic platform, with an open programming interface so that developers out there can write their own games using Sphero.

Berberian said that the company already has a few variants of the game, beyond just trying to steer around a little ball. Among the options is a sumo wrestling notion in which two players, each with their own Sphero, try to knock the opposing ball outside of a certain ring. There’s also a tug-of-war concept in which players answer questions to vie for control of the ball to move it toward opposite goals.

That, Berberian said, is only the beginning of the company’s ambition. It hopes others will write programs for Sphero as well, with the company aiming to have a number of such programs available when Sphero hits the market later this year.

At this point, there are far fewer than 100 of the balls, all prototypes rolling around the company’s offices. Berberian said the company plans to bring about a dozen of them to Las Vegas for people to play around with at the company’s booth.

In case you are thinking, as I was, “Wow, what a great cat toy,” Berberian insists it’s not designed for pets.

“What people choose to do in their own home is up to them,” Berberian said. However, he cautioned that Sphero is “not designed for a Great Dane to pick up and start chomping on and survive that kind of pressure.”

Here’s an Orboitx-produced video that shows one of the prototypes in action.

Sphero Sneak Peek from Paul Berberian on Vimeo.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

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