The Power of Connected Play

Today, Orbotix, the maker of Sphero, has raised a new round of $15.5 million, led by Shea Ventures and including new investor Grishin Robotics. We were the original investors in Orbotix and I joined their board in the fall of 2010 after they went through the Techstars Boulder program.

The first post I wrote about Orbotix included an aspirational phrase for what they were working on.

Orbotix is creating a new game platform that combines common physical objects, smart phones, and a software marketplace. Their first product will “reinvent the ball” through the creation of a robotic ball controlled by a smart phone.

They shipped Sphero 1.0 just before the end of 2011 so their first real year in the market was in 2012. Sphero 2.0 shipped in the fall of 2013 and was praised in reviews like the one in TechCrunch which gushed Sphero 2.0 Is Twice As Fast, Agile, And Awesome.

And then came Ollie, which will join its older brother Sphero when it ships this fall.

Connected play is a new category that I’m completely obsessed about. When the iPhone and iTouch came out, there was an incredible shift to mobile devices for games. Suddenly, the toy that kids were playing with was a virtual one – something that was occurring on a sheet of glass they held in their hands. For a kid like me who grew up with video games on an Apple ][, this was pretty awesome. But it felt limiting, especially as I watched kids (and adults) react to Sphero.

As someone who has seen behind the curtain at Orbotix, littleBits, and Modular Robotics, it is amazing what you can do, and where you can go, when you connect physical objects with a smartphone. As an investor in these three companies, I’m psyched to be part of inventing a new category we are calling connected play.

Come join us and play!

  • Mind blowing…

  • But will my cats play with it for more than 3 minutes? If so I’m a buyer.

    • Nikki Braziel

      This is me too, David. My cat is too cool for school. The budget for a toy he’d consistently play with is almost limitless…

    • I have empirical evidence that at least once cat engages for more than three minutes!

  • Steven Webster

    Brad, I’d highly recommend checking in on Disney Research from time to time. They do some fantastic work that is enabling technology for next generation of connected play; I never get bored reading what the next generation of imagineers are cooking up.

    • Thx. We’re pretty psyched about the Disney Accelerator ( which is happening in conjunction with Techstars.

      • Steven Webster

        I hadn’t seen that accelerator. Exciting for sure.

  • Nikki Braziel

    Stumbled on the below article just before reading your post, and it got me thinking about the possibilities of enchanted objects connected to smartphones that can sense our emotions. If Sphero could summon me out of my office when I need a chill-out walk, I would totally follow it…

  • Glad to see they’re doing well. I got my 10 year old son tinybits and sphero for Christmas. The one challenge is that it takes some adult interaction for him to really enjoy the toys. The one benefit is that it takes some adult interaction where I get to spend time with my son playing with the physical and digital toys. I’ll be interested to see how this evolves. Can I spend a certain amount of time up front and then he’ll take it from there and create well beyond what I would be able to do? The key differences is that as a kid he has something adults don’t have much of: disposable time.

    Finding the balance between adult interaction needed and playable out of the box is going to be key.

    • I completely agree. Getting this balance right isn’t easy, but I’d always err toward a little more parental engagement early on.

      • I’d probably err on the side of out of the box fun for the kid, but the advanced fun requiring a little parental engagement. You still want to make the parent look like a rockstar when they show the kid that a toy they enjoyed could be so much better.

  • Alex Wolf

    Wow. I am impressed by how much money is being invested in these companies. I love what they do. Brad, you have shifted my fantasy of building science play into sharper focus on what funding could activate for us at na2ure. Even though they are kinetic and we are play based biology, I feel so akin to companies shifting learning to a more fun approach. We have a such huge amount of IP and prototypes up our sleeve, and I have been stubbornly revenue model based. #gauntletthrown

    • Alex – happy to talk any time and explore ways to collaborate.

      • Alex Wolf

        I will ping you!

  • Cliff Jolly

    Virtual Reality + Connected Play = ?

  • Steve Reaser

    Similar to @cliff_jolly:disqus below, I’ve been wondering if there is an interesting Venn diagram intersection between Connected Play and 3D printing… especially with an open source flavor.

    Many connected play devices could easily let you hack the software as part of the play. Why not hack the hardware too…

    Anyone working on something like this?

    • If you wandered around Orbotix office (which you are welcome to do anytime you are in Boulder – just holler) you’ll see a bunch of Makerbot 3D printers hard at work. Several of the accessories coming out this summer were prototyped on a Makerbot. Much of the new product experimentation is augmented with stuff coming out of a Makerbot. So yes – short term for Orbotix there’s a huge amount of linkage between 3D printing and connected play on the manufacturer side with a lot more coming on the consumer side as 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous.

      See some examples.

      • Steve Reaser

        Totally with you on the use of Makerbots by the manufacturer; I was mulling whether there are interesting models that give the consumer access to 3D printing as part of their purchase (or as an upgrade) without having to have a 3d printer at home.

        Use our app to design your own Orbotix shells and we’ll mail ’em right out. That kind of thing.

        Put 3d printing and the empowerment and learning that it provides in the hands of as many people as possible, even before they are affordable enough to be ubiquitous. (We need more makerspaces as well!)

        ((Thx for the invite to check out Orbotix; I will holler next time I’m in town!))