Blurring the Lines of Reality

I am not easily impressed with consumer electronics, mostly because more often than not I find that add-ons and gizmos and features are constantly being added to devices Blurring the Lines of Reality without a clear and useful purpose, overcomplicating things that would best remain simple.

But I came across something recently that totally surprised me. A company called Orbotix has developed a gaming device that blurs the line between the virtual world and the real world, and allows the user to participate in what is being called “mixed reality gaming”.

Sphero, as the device is named, is a baseball-sized robotic ball that also serves as a gaming controller for iPhone/iPad apps. Operating wirelessly via Bluetooth, it works similarly to how a Wii controller works. You can tilt it and move it and the game responds to the controller’s movements. Unlike the Wii controller, however, you can then set Sphero down on the floor and control it using your iPhone. With the simple changing of an app, the Sphero goes from the controller to control.

In controlled mode, the Sphero effortlessly rolls along the floor in whatever direction the user sends it. Its movement is created by an internal motor that drives wheels against the interior surface of the sphere. The signal that drives the motor is received by a 1-inch antenna inside the sphere.

The device has been in the public eye since late 2010, Blurring the Lines of Reality and over the past two years the Orbotix team has been working out all the kinks. They had to address all sorts of issues, such as finding toy-sized motors with their desired run life of greater than 150 hours and creating an outer shell that was perfectly spherical while also remaining as thin and as strong as possible.

On that note, anyone who buys a Sphero and then tries to repair it on warranty after driving it into oncoming traffic will be sorely disappointed. Sphero has a built-in recording system that, similar to the black box of an aircraft, records what forces act upon it during use and this data is used when deciding warranty claims.

What most intrigues me about this device is the blending of game and reality. Other companies have begun doing this as well. Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing device, developed for the Xbox 360, allows gamers to use their body movements to control a game, going from real to virtual.

If you want to box, you throw a punch instead of pressing a button. The advantage Sphero has over the current technology is that it can go from virtual to real as well.

For me, if Microsoft or Nintendo want to beat Sphero, they are going to have to do something drastic, like making people actually feel the punch they get from their opponent. And not a punch from a guy with a smiley face with unattached head and limbs. From this guy.


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