Tag Archives: sphero

Toys are serious fun

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Boys prefer helicopters?

What might be the most revolutionary technology poking its nose into the market right now is just a toy. NeuroSky makes a headset that controls devices by reading your brainwaves. Their first shot at a product was a tiara with cat ears that reacted to the wearer’s mood. A big hit with girls. A helicopter for the boys followed.

There’s a long and proud tradition of breakthrough technology getting its first consumer foothold in toy stores. Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of Pong. It began in arcades game but quickly became a home game.

Pong was the launching pad for video games, personal computers and, after a few early adopters forgot to turn it off, screen savers. It was four years ahead of the Apple I. Its descendants – like the Atari 400, my first personal computer – were early Silicon Valley market leaders.

Breakthrough technologies first move through a toy phase because no one is really sure what to do with it or is willing to rely on unstable products for anything except a moment’s entertainment. Toys grab our interest. A lot of the value comes from figuring out what to do with them.

When Wham-O (another Californian garage start-up) introduced the Frisbee, there was nothing much to do with it except toss it back and forth. It caught on because the heavy lifting of product development was done for free. And for fun.

Toys drive technology because the cost of failure is low and the intrinsic value is high. Companies like NeuroSky, Sphero and Road Narrows are learning while they make a living. That’s how you get a head start on the land rush into completely new industries.

Playing with augmented reality

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Great way to meet new friends.

It'll be small development companies like Sphero that turn wearable computing products like Vuzix's headset mounted smart phone video display into genuine augmented reality (AR) devices.

The Boulder, Colorado based company already has a neat gizmo on the market. It's a white plastic sphere about the size of a tennis ball that glows in different colors and rolls around on the floor, powered by an internal motor. You control it with an iOS or Android app via a Bluetooth link.

It scoots back and forth and around and around. There are games written for it, or you can race with your friends.

It's a blast to play with. Their booth at CES last week was packed with people waiting their turn to give it a try. It's definitely a toy. But it has a potentially serious side.

One of the apps written for it lets you steer it while pointing a tablet's camera at it and watching it on screen. Fun enough. But the app superimposes an animated figure over the white ball, so viewed on the screen it looks like a cartoon character is walking around the room and interacting with people.

Potential applications include video production – you could make your own live action Roadrunner cartoon – and telepresence.

Sphero has been around about a year. Its current product retails for $129 and software developer kits are available. On board sensors include an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetic reed switch. Battery charging is via induction, keeping the outside smooth.