Orbotix pits Sphero as an advanced 3D controller, details upcoming Augmented Reality Engine (hands-on)

During the wind down of E3, we were able to spend a few fleeting moments with the folks from Orbotix to talk about its latest batch of upcoming software for Sphero. If you're unfamiliar with the gizmo, it's essentially a Bluetooth-enabled robotic ball that can be controlled using your Android or iOS device. While Sphero is certainly a unique toy, we grew bored of it quickly -- it ended up best serving us as spendy dog toy during our review. The toy does have constant app development in its favor however, and the company insists that it will continue to offer free apps that open up the roller's capabilities. Head past the break where we'll detail two new advancements on the platform: augmented reality and advanced 3D control support.

First up is a game entitled Exile. The mechanics are similar to top-down shooters like Galaga and Asteroids, where you pilot a spacecraft while avoiding objects and zapping aliens. In this instance an iPad is used as the screen, delegating Sphero to the position of a floating 3D trackball. After a quick calibration process of lining up a dot on the ball with our thumb, we were able to get gaming. Moving it forward / backward or side to side causes the ship to do the same, a twist of the wrist lets you change your heading in 360 degrees and vertical z-axis movements let you fire off special weapons. We're told this isn't the first app to use Sphero as a 3D controller, but notably, it's the first time Sphero has supported the three movements described above. We came away impressed with how responsive the controls were, and there was nary a trace of any lag. According to the company, this app will be available for download within the next month.

As if being acting as a 3D controller wasn't cool enough, Orbotix also gave us a peek at how the ball can be used for advanced augmented reality. Using an in-house development software (again on an iPad) dubbed as Sphero Augmented Reality Engine, the tablet's camera can be used scan for the Sphero, while detecting it and the surrounding environment to make on-screen manipulations to the both -- a featured we wished for during our review. While the demo doesn't showcase the upcoming 3D engine support or fancy graphics, it doesn't require any fiduciaries to work; in plain English, this means that you don't have to fuss with any extras like AR cards for the magic to happen. Our demo simply involved a 2D dinosaur that moved with the ball, displaying it in one of four positions depending on Sphero's direction. We're told the ARE is being readied for release in an updated SDK that's due shortly. Better yet, it'll work with multiple units at a time for multiplayer game types. All in all, these two demos clearly highlight how Sphero has the potential to do so much more than simply serve as Android / iOS-controlled rolling ball. We can wait to see how they polish out once released.