Sphero Mini is this holiday season’s impulse buy

Boulder, Colorado-based Sphero rose to prominence with Disney-licensed, remote-controlled merchandise like Ultimate Lightning McQueen, BB-8, BB-9E, and R2D2, But back in 2011, Sphero’s co-founders won over investors with a simple premise: A motorized ball that taps your smartphone for remote control. The first attempt was a little bulkier and pricier than originally envisioned, but now, after years of development, Sphero has come full circle, so to speak, with the Mini.

The Sphero Mini, which is available now starting at $50, is a lighter, slimmer version of the Sphero Sprk+ and eponymous Sphero. It’s roughly the width and height (0.04 inches) of a golf ball, and it packs multicolored diodes that illuminate the innards of its transparent plastic casing. Inside the case, which splits in two, is a micro USB port — unlike the full-sized Sphero, the Sphero Mini charges via USB, rather than wireless induction.

It’s more complicated than it looks. All of the Mini’s components are custom-built by Sphero’s supply chain partners, Adam Wilson, a Sphero co-founder and the company’s chief scientist, told Digital Trends. “It’s a manufacturing process that we’ve been developing since [our first product],” Wilson said. “It’s always been a matter of shrinking down the components. It just wasn’t possible [in 2011].”

The laundry list of hardware includes a self-stabilizing gyroscope and accelerometer, a Bluetooth radio that pairs to a smartphone, and a battery that lasts for up to an hour of play — and takes an hour to charge. “[The Mini] has basically what you’d find in any smartphone,” Wilson said.

But that’s only half of the Mini’s magic. The other half lies in the little ball’s companion app for iOS and Android devices. A joystick-based Driving mode lets you accelerate, decelerate, and turn the Mini on its axes, and Tilt mode taps your phone’s orientation sensors to move the Mini forward when you tilt upward, backward when you tilt downward, and sideways when you pitch rightward or leftward.

“We designed it to be straightforward,” Wilson said, “even if you’ve never driven [a Sphero] before.”

Perhaps the most intuitive way to drive the Mini is in Face Drive mode, which uses the phone’s front camera feed and a facial-recognition algorithm to move the Mini forward and backward. Smile, and the Mini accelerates toward you; frown, and the Mini rockets away.

Wilson said a feature like Face Drive, a product of Sphero’s internal accelerator program, wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. “Smartphone cameras weren’t good enough,” he said. “Now that we can do [facial recognition], we wanted to have a little fun with it.”

Sphero Mini

If the Mini app’s freestyle modes don’t suit your fancy, the games might. In Slingshot, the Mini is represented by a colored blob at the center of the phone’s screen; pulling back on it builds up the Mini’s speed, and releasing it launches it forward.

It’s meant to be used with the Mini’s in-the-box accessories — three mini plastic traffic cones and six mini bowling pins. The idea’s to set up a tiny obstacle course for the Mini to navigate, which is trickier than it sounds — we had trouble knocking over pins on a table. “It takes practice,” Wilson said.

Alternatively, the Mini’s app lets you flip the script and control your smartphone with the little light-up ball. You use the Mini as a game motion controller in any of three games: Exile II, which tasks you with moving a spaceship with the Mini’s motion sensors; Lightspeed Drifter, which puts you in the driver’s seat of a futuristic spaceship; and Round Trip, Sphero’s take on Brick Breaker.

“You might see more in the future,” Wilson said. “We’re constantly tweaking things.”

Wilson sees the Sphero Mini’s $50 asking price as one of its strongest selling points — he thinks it could be a boon for schools. The Mini is fully compatible with Sphero’s Edu app, which lets curious young programmers build custom games and routines for the Mini using JavaScript.

There’s potential for expansion, too. In the coming months, Sphero plans to roll out custom cases for the Mini in new colors and designs. You might see licensed cases based on Pokémon (a Poké Ball) or Star Wars (a tiny BB-8), eventually.

“We think they’ll be really popular,” said Wilson. “We’re really confident in our product lineup heading into the holiday season.”

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