Sphero Mini is not only the tiniest robot ball we’ve ever seen, it’s also the first one you can control with a smile or a frown.
Born out of an internal company accelerator program and the desire to deliver Sphero’s first $50 robot, Sphero Mini is the robot you’d get if you looked at an original Sphero 2 ball robot through the wrong side of a telescope.
The roughly 1.25-inch ball bot is, in most respects, a small version of the full-sized Sphero. You connect to it via Bluetooth by holding your phone near the robot and control it with a custom app (iOS or Google Play).
There are some differences. Unlike the full-sized Sphero, Sphero Mini doesn’t use an inductive charger. Instead, you open the hard-plastic case by gently squeezing both sides, pulling them apart, and plugging the robot skeleton into a micro-USB charger for 45 minutes, which gives you 45 minutes of play time.
The app is different, too. It’s custom-built for Sphero Mini and has a new joystick interface, as well as a tilt-control that lets you tilt your smartphone to control the robot. There’s also a new control called “Slingshot” that lets you pull back on the onscreen control, release it, and send Sphero Mini rocketing toward a target, which the Sphero Mini kit also provides; it ships with a small set of tiny, robber bowling pins and orange traffic cones.
Those will come in handy when you start programming Sphero Mini using the Sphero EDU program — yes, the same STEM-based system that the full-sized Sphero uses. Any program you write in Sphero EDU will work with either robot.
There are also a bunch of games, including ones that allow you to use the palmable Sphero Mini as a game controller like Round Trip and the space shooter game Exile II.
Sphero Mini, though, has another nifty trick up its sleeve: The ability to be controlled via facial expression and head movements. Granted, the device reading your face is the phone and not Sphero Mini, but the response from you making a face at your screen to Sphero Mini reacting is virtually instantaneous.
Sphero Mini is significantly smaller than Sphero 2.0, and a lot cuter. There’s just something about that ping-pong-ball size, the bright colors (you can buy different shells) and the little Sphero logo that just makes you want to hold it.
I charged the Sphero Mini for 45 minutes and then connected to the new Sphero Mini app via Bluetooth by holding the robot near my phone. As with all other previous Sphero’s there’s no power button on the robot.
Driving the Sphero Mini still requires you to orient the ball bot first, moving the onscreen control until the robot’s internal blue light is pointed right at you. With that done, I had my choice of controls. The Joystick, which lets you touch the screen to drag and drive the Sphero Mini is, by far, the easiest control Sphero has ever concocted. Even so, Sphero Mini moves fast — 3 feet per second — and can easily get away from you.
I had Sphero Mini on my desk when I first started to drive. It flew off, hit the carpet-covered floor and popped open. That’s never happened with a Sphero robot before. Fortunately, no damage was done and Sphero Mini’s two halves snapped right back together, but it’s worth remembering that, unlike the full-sized Sphero, this one is not indestructible or waterproof.
Next, I opened Face Drive. With your permission, it uses your phone’s front-facing camera to track your facial expressions and head movements to control the robot. The app immediately locked onto my face and when I smiled, Sphero Mini took off. A frown brought it racing back. I turned by head left and the robot headed left and when I turned it right, the robot when right.
This was nutty, but fun.
To improve my driving skill, I took the six rubber bowling pins and two orange cones and set them on my desk (the pins wouldn’t stand up on the rug) so I could practice carefully driving around them. For the record, I was terrible at this.
I also loved playing the mini games with the Sphero Mini as controller. The Sphero packaging doubles as a smartphone holder so you can prop up your phone and just watch the game unfold onscreen while you hold the Sphero Mini (however, when I tapped the iPhone screen, it almost tipped over).
Games like Exile II guide you to first calibrate the Sphero Mini-as-controller and then you just turn it this way and that to send the game’s spaceship forward, back and side to side. It’s so intuitive, responsive, and comfortable to hold, that I began to wonder if this is the true future of game controllers, mobile and otherwise. Sphero Mini is almost small enough that you can take it with you anywhere. Imagine if other mobile game developers get wind of it.
At $49.99, there’s little doubt that the Sphero Mini will be a hot item this holiday season. The ping-pong-ball-sized robot does virtually everything its big brother does at half the price. Sphero told me it expects to come out with a wider assortment of shells, and that there could be a whole world of cool add-ons to come. I’m betting Disney is looking at the Mini and wondering how soon it can convert them into armies of tiny BB-8 robot toys. Sphero had nothing to say on that matter.