Orbotix just released a new version of the Sphero firmware. This is a fundamental part of our thesis around “software wrapped in plastic” – we love investing in physical products that have a huge, and ever improving, software layer. The first version of the Sphero hardware just got a brain transplant and the guys at Orbotix do a brilliant job of showing what the difference is.
Even if you aren’t into Sphero, this is a video worthwhile watching to understand what we mean as investors when we talk about software wrapped in plastic (like our investments in Fitbit, Sifteo, and Modular Robotics.)
When I look at my little friend Sphero, I feel a connection to him that is special. It’s like my Fitbit – it feels like an extension of me. I have a physical connection with the Fitbit (it’s an organ that tracks and displays data I produce). I have an emotional connection with Sphero (it’s a friend I love to have around and play with.) The cross-over between human and machine is tangible with each of these products, and we are only at the very beginning of the arc with them.
I love this stuff. If you are working on a product that is software wrapped in plastic, tell me how to get my hands on it.
It was the second week of TechStars and I was doing office hours with each of the 11 teams going through the Boulder 2010 program. I was sitting across the table from Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein who each looked tired and dejected. In front of them were three slides.
I asked them what was wrong. They said they were having trouble deciding which of three different products to pursue. They’d had a dozen meetings with different mentors and were getting wildly conflicting data, which we refer to in TechStars as “mentor whiplash” and is a normal part of the first 30 days of TechStars for every team.
A few weeks earlier, Adam and Ian had their company Gearbox accepted into TechStars. They were hardware / software / robotics nerds and loved to tinker around. Their TechStars application and video had something to do with robots and their crazy desire to stay up all night hacking on them. When I’d last seen them a few weeks earlier, they were full of energy and life. Now they just looked defeated.
“Tell me about each of the ideas.” I asked. Adam started with the first one. “It’s a door lock controlled by your smartphone. The door lock market is really big.” said Adam in the most deadpan monotone voice I’ve ever heard.
“Ok – what’s the next one?” I asked. Ian mumbled something about the second slide on the table. I don’t even remember what he said.
“What about the third one?” Adam chimed in again, a little more animated this time. “It’s a robotic ball controlled by your smartphone.”
“Why are you having trouble deciding?” I asked. Adam kept going. “Some of the mentors like the door lock market but it seems like a really easy product to create and there are lots of door lock companies. And some don’t like it because it’s not defensible. No one really understands the second idea. And then there’s the ball – some mentors love it and others hate it.”
“Well,” I asked, “Is there one you love a lot more than the other two?” Adam and Ian looked at me quizzically, the same way my golden retrievers do when I ask them if they want to go for a walk. “Really, you just want to know which one we love the best?” asked Ian.
Adam jumped in, “Are you kidding. The ball. It’s a robotic ball you control with your smartphone.” Adam stood up with a gleam in his eye. “Brad, IT’S A ROBOTIC BALL YOU CONTROL WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE! HOW COOL IS THAT.”
At that moment, Sphero was born. And I knew that if Adam and Ian could make any progress over the next 10 weeks creating a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone, I wanted to invest in these two amazing guys. Their passion and obsession around the idea of a robotic ball you control with a smartphone was awesome.
Over the ensuing weeks they were regularly asked “what’s the market”, “who is the customer”, “how big is the market”, “isn’t it just a toy?”, and a bunch of other skeptical questions. As the weeks went by, they kept answering these sames questions with some variant of “we don’t really know but here are some ideas.” They kept working on the prototype and once they could drive something in a sort of a straight line, more eyes started lighting up and the “how big is the market questions” started to diminish.
Fundamentally, they didn’t know the answer, nor was it important at this stage. There are a zillion balls in the world and an endless set of applications for them; at this point Adam and Ian were pursuing the vision of a product that they were obsessed about. While some mentors and investors wanted to understand all the market and customer dynamics, others were able to see, or dream about, the enormous potential opportunities if the product could ever be created.
Sphero is now available in some Brookstone stores around the US. There’s a handy map on the Sphero site and I’ll include a list at the bottom of this post.
Occasionally one of you, dear blog reader, will ask if you can do anything for me. I usually say something like “just do awesome things” but this time I have a request. If you live near one of the Brookstone stores with a Sphero, go check it out. Play with it. Have your kids play with it (if you have kids). And if you like it, buy one.
Cats are cute, right? What could be more cute than a cat playing with a Sphero?
How about the President of the United States playing with a Sphero. Ok – that’s not cute, it’s cool.
Now, how about you playing with a Sphero? At a Brookstone store. And then buying one? That would be mega awesome cool.
If you travel through any of the following airports on Memorial Day, go check out our little robot friend
- Chicago (O’Hare)
- Dallas/Fort Worth,
- Los Angeles
Following are the addresses for the stores in alpha order by city.
- Atlanta, GA – 4400 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Suite 1360
- Braintree, MA – 250 Granite St # 12
- Columbia, MD – 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway
- Concord, CA – 424 Sun Valley Mall # 1
- Costa Mesa, CA – 3333 Bristol Street, Suite 1870
- Dallas, TX – 214 North Park Center
- Danbury, CT – 7 Backus Avenue
- Denver, CO – 3000 East 1st Avenue
- Freehold, NJ – 3710 Route 9
- Houston, TX – 5085 Westheimer Rd
- Louisville, KY – 5000 Shelbyville Rd # 1380
- Lynnwood, WA – 3000 184th Street SW
- Marlborough, MA – 601 Donald Lynch Boulevard
- McLean, VA – 1961 Chain Bridge
- Miami, FL – 8888 SW 136 Street
- Minneapolis, MN – 162 Market Street
- Nashua, NH – 310 Daniel Webster Hwy
- Orland Park, IL – 736 Orland Square Dr
- Orlando, FL – 4200 Conroy Road
- Palm Beach Gardens, FL – 3101 Pga Boulevard
- Raleigh, NC – 4325 Glenwood Ave
- San Diego, CA – 7007 Friars Road
- San Francisco, CA – 3251 20th Ave
- Santa Monica, CA – 1311 Third Street Promenade
- Schaumburg, IL – 60173 Woodfield Mall
- South Portland, ME – 364 Maine Mall Road
- Troy, MI – 2801 West Big Beaver Road
- Waterford, CT – 850 Hartford Tpke # P207
Last week President Obama played with a Sphero. This weekend you can win up to $5,000 at the Sphero Hackathon in Boulder. It starts Friday May 4th at 6pm with a Welcome Reception (which means beer and Spheros) and runs all day Saturday and Sunday where you can hack with Spheros and the Orbotix SDK. I’ll be around Sunday from 1pm to 3pm taking a look at what people have done, playing around with the apps, and answering any questions about why I think Sphero (and Orbotix – the company that makes Sphero) is so awesome.
Two new apps have recently come out for the Sphero. The first, Chromo, allows you to play with Sphero in a whole new way. While Orbotix’s other apps allow you to control Sphero from your device (kinetically and via a digital joystick), now Sphero is the controller. The video tells the story better than words.
The other app is MacroLab. Did you have a Big Trak as a kid? If not, you missed out, but you can relive those missed moments with MacroLab. As before, let’s start with a quick video.
MacroLab is a tool Orbotix developed for internal purposes that turned out to be so powerful they decided to make it available to all Sphero users. It is essentially a high level abstraction of the API that runs in the ball’s memory that commands the robot. It makes the API accessible to people who don’t know how to program an iOS or Android app.
When a user creates a macro they send a series of commands to the ball. Macros are made by stringing together 27 basic commands (by comparison the SDK has about 300 commands – most are UI/robot housekeeping based but 100 are ball control related). Each command is executed in sequence. Following is an example (called “test”) along with an explanation.
– Calibrate – this zeros out Sphero’s heading so you know which way he will go after you aim him
– RGB – this changes the color of the LED to purple – the numbers are the RGB settings
– Roll 0.5 0 0 – 50% speed (0.5), 0º heading = straight ahead, 0 second wait time before executing next command
If we stopped here the LED will flash purple and Sphero would run away at 50% speed and only stop when you exit the macro. Basically the macro runs for a fraction of a second with an open ended roll command. The Sphero goes white (his default color) after the macro is run. In order to not have an open ended command we need to add some more stuff.
– Delay 5000 – this means to wait for 5 seconds, Sphero uses milliseconds so 5000ms = 5 seconds
– Roll 0.0 0 0 – 0% speed (0.0), 0º heading, 0 second delay
– RGB – change LED color to orange
– Delay 1000 – Wait for 1 second
The entire macro runs for 6 seconds. Sphero will turn purple, drive for 5 seconds at 50% speed, stop, turn orange for one second and then end by turning white.
The commands for MacroLab are very basic but powerful enough that Orbotix uses them to run tests on the factory line and form the basis of programs like “Draw N Drive” (every line you draw gets converted to a macro and the ball executes the command). The complete command list follows:
- Roll – sets the ball in motion
- RGB – changes the main LED color
- Calibrate – zeros heading
- Delay – wait time in ms before executing next command
- Fade – fade between two colors over a set period of time
- Back LED – turn the blue aiming LED on/off
- WaitUntilStop – don’t execute the next command until Sphero has stopped moving
- Rotate Over Time – turn xº in y seconds
- SD1, SD2 – global variables for system delays – useful when you want a bunch of commands to use the same delay
- SPD1, SPD2 – global variables for ball speeds – useful when you want a bunch of roll commands all at the same speed
- Roll SD1, SPD1 – roll command that uses the system SD1 for delay and SPD1 for speed
- Roll SD1, SPD2 – roll command that uses the SD1 for delay and SPD2 for speed
- RGB SD2 – change LED to RGB setting but use SD2 delay time for duration
- Rotate Over TIme SD1, SD2 – rotate over time command but uses the system delays SD1 and SD2 respectively
- Goto – calls another macro or restarts the same macro
- Rotation Rate – set how fast the ball can turn
- Stabilization – turns the control system on and off -when off the robot will not move inside the ball
- Raw Motor – command the motors without any control system enabled
- EMIT – Displays a message on the phone when the ball hits that point in the macro – useful for debugging
- Sleep – Puts Sphero to sleep
- Loop For, End – Create loops within the macro
- Comment – ability to add comments to your macros – no effect on the ball
When I first heard the idea for MacroLab I smiled a huge smile. It’s the beginning of Orbotix opening up their robot control language, which is part of the magic behind the premise for our investment in Orbotix. I’m amused when people say “why did you invest in a toy ball company?” when what we really invested in was a bunch of geniuses working on a robotic operating system that happens to start life out as a robot ball that you control with your smartphone.
Yesterday, President Obama was in Boulder. The guys at Orbotix showed up and got him to play around with a Sphero. Watch the video (it’s pretty awesome) and then I’ll tell you the story of how they made it happen. The short answer – always be ready to demo your product – you never know when the President (or a key customer) is nearby.
Our main characters for this story are Ross Ingram and Damon Arniotes. Ross is the one demoing Sphero to the President. Ross is Mr. Everywhere for Orbotix – his job is to handle every hack event, be at every party, and show up everywhere that might be interesting with a bunch of Spheros. Damion is the guy filming everything on his iPhone. His full time job is to video Sphero in the wild and tell the story all the time.
On Monday night after Ross and Damon found out the President would be at CU Boulder they starting talking about how awesome it would be to get a Sphero into Obama’s hands. No one knew Obama’s route around CU and Boulder, but Ross and Damon drove around the Campus and the Hill (next to CU) to scope things out. I’m betting at least one beer was consumed.
On Tuesday, they drove to CU with Spheros in hand but still didn’t know where Obama was going to be. They had to leave Damon’s camera gear behind because of security and the fact that Damon isn’t press (apparently only press is allowed cameras).
While they were driving to campus they saw a bunch of yellow police tape and took a guess that this was a spot that might see some action. If you are a fly fisherman, you know this drill. Go where you think the fish are going to be and wait. They found a parking spot near the Sink (one of the venerable old college hangouts on the Hill) and parked.
Ross called Paul Berberian, Orbotix’s CEO around 6pm and asked Paul if they should drive Sphero past the yellow tape towards Obama. Paul, who went to the Air Force Academy, responded with “No fucking way – you’ll end up in jail – remote control ball rolling to the president – bad idea.”
Around 6:45 Secret Service starts cherry picking folks from the crowd to be in the receiving line for the President. Magically Ross and Damon get picked – they get screened with metal detectors and are allowed in with Sphero. A girl with a Slurpie had to throw it away – apparently Slurpies are more dangerous than robotic balls. I bet she had one of those neon blue ones.
The President rolls up minutes later and starts shaking hands. Damon starts filming on his iPhone. Ross greets the President and asks him to see his iPhone to drive the robot ball. The President immediately gets it; Ross asks him if he wants to drive it – and the rest is what you saw on the video. While this is happening, the Secret Service rushed in around Ross and Damon as soon as the President engaged, but the President kept going with Sphero so they hung back.
Someone in the crowd took the Sphero while Ross and Damon frantically played back to video to see if they got it. They did and the rest is memorialized for history – this is the first time we are aware of that a President of the United States has played with a robotic ball controlled with an iPhone.
There are two big lessons here. First, always be ready. Second, hire amazing guys like Ross and Damon and let the loose on the world. Guys – incredible!
My little buddy, the robotic ball controlled by your smartphone named Sphero, has shipped and you can order a Sphero now! Having watched Sphero come to life over the past 17 months, starting as a seed of an idea in the heads of two mad geniuses (Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson) has been awesome.
I remember seeing Ian and Adam’s video application to TechStars for the Boulder 2010 program (at the time the company was called Gearbox). There were a lot of questions on the selection committee because it wasn’t a typical software thing. “These guys are hardware hackers – will we have good mentors for them?” was one of the questions asked. “Fuck yeah” I said. “I’ll be one of their lead mentors. I love robots.”
In my first mentor meeting with Ian and Adam, they showed me three ideas. One was an iPhone controlled door lock. One was something else that was iPhone controlled but was so stupid I can’t remember what it was. One was a ball that you could control with your smartphone. As they described idea #1, they told me about the mentors who had said “this could be a good business.” As they described idea #2, I started thinking to myself “where is the passion in these guys that I saw in the video?” When they got to the ball, I remember Adam (or was it Ian) saying something like “our third idea is a remote control ball – how cool is that?” We talked about it for a minute or two and with each passing second they became more animated. Adam literally stood up and was gesturing around as he tried to show me what it would be like to use it.
I looked quietly at each of them and said “which idea do you love?” In unison, they responded with “the ball.” Do you love any of the other ideas? Silence. Then I asked “so why is there even a choice in your mind?” One of them responded with “well – some of the people we’ve talked to thought the ball was a stupid idea and there was no market for it.” I responded with “Fuck that – do what you love.”
Paul Berberian, one of their mentors during TechStars, shared the same enthusiasm. About halfway through the program Ian, Adam, and Paul started to talk about teaming up – by the end of TechStars Paul had joined as the CEO. I’ve worked with Paul since he co-founded Raindance Communications in 1997 and was delighted to quickly lead a seed financing for Orbotix.
17 months later we have the world’s first robotic ball controlled by a smartphone. The early reviews are starting to come in and they are all in the “wow this is cool I wish there were more apps” category.
TechCrunch on Sphero: “As a technological artifact, the ball is incredible. When’s the last time you’ve seen a small, self-propelled ball with built-in gyroscope, accelerometer, Bluetooth radio, and compass? You could put a little explosive in these and they could be a Bond villain.”
CNET on Sphero: “In the end, it’s Sphero’s shape that may be both its strength and its weakness, for it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a ball–and it’s not terribly exciting to see a ball roll around on its own after a while, even one that’s interactive and lights up. Of course, it’s something of a technological feat to remotely put a ball in motion, and kudos to Orbotix for doing that and coming up with an app tie-in strategy that should help keep things interesting moving forward. All that’s pretty clever. Or maybe it’s stupid. It is such a fine line.”
Engaget on Sphero: “That said, Sphero is a great toy to have if you’ve got any furry friends — this reporter spent a good thirty minutes making Sphero chase a friend’s dog, and it seems the pup had even more fun with it than his human friends. We should also note Sphero’s worth as a conversation starter, as most folks haven’t seen anything like it, and are keen to take it for a spin.”
I have two dogs and they love the Sphero. So far I haven’t gotten remotely bored playing around with them with it. I’ve played a few of the upcoming Sphero apps, including a Mixed Reality Pong game, using Sphero to control your phone (3D joystick like behavior), movement tracking, and Wii like games where the ball replaces the Wii mote. The potential of apps built to incorporate a Sphero just blows my mind.
In addition to shipping Sphero, Orbotix also released their SDK and the first five Sphero apps. The short term goal is to make it easy for anyone to develop apps for Sphero since – even though the Orbotix team is crazy smart and creative, we know that the breakthrough apps will come from other people.
I love the stuff I invest in. It’s magical to me that the idea Ian and Adam had 17 months ago is now a product with a full fledged software ecosystem around it. Orbotix is a long way from being a successful company, but shipping Sphero is a huge step in their journey.
If you love robots, want to hack on a robotic ball, have a cat, have a kid, or just want to play around with an amazing new toy at its very early stages, order your Sphero today. Yes, there’s a backlog so you won’t get it in time for Christmas, but hopefully they’ll be fully caught up by January.
I have an unbelievable nerd crush on my friends at Orbotix. They are marching hard towards a late 2011 release of their first product, Sphero. In addition to the physical robotic ball, they have a bunch of iOS and Android games that are taking shape. One of them is golf. Take a look at “night golf with a Sphero” (hint – it’s awesome).
Don’t wait – reserve your Sphero now from the first batch – given the pre-orders already I’m 100% sure we’ll sell out. Just to put my money where my mouth is, I greenlighted the next order of long lead time parts at the board meeting on Monday.
If you don’t know Orbotix, they make Sphero, the robotic ball you control with your smartphone. And if you you wonder why you should care, take a look at Sphero on his chariot being driven by Paul Berberian (Orbotix CEO) while running Facetime.
We are looking for two new full time positions to fill as soon as possible. We need talented iOS and Android Developers that are not afraid of a little hard work and a little hardware! You must have an imagination. No previous robotics experience necessary but it doesn’t hurt. We want someone that can help make an API, low level protocols, implement games and work on other research and development tasks for Sphero. We expect some level of gaming history and previous experience in the field. There are online Leaderboards and some side tasks include coding up demonstration apps for our numerous interviews, conventions and for fun! We pay well, have plenty of food and beverage stocked including beer, redbull and the famous hot-pockets, are in downtown Boulder and literally play with robots all day/night long. Read our full jobs posting at https://www.orbotix.com/jobs/ for more info. Take a chance…. email me at email@example.com.