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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Turn Your Smart Phone Into a Robot Remote Control

Here are two ways to show your robot who’s boss with your iPhone or Android.

  • September 20, 2011

Android and iPhone users alike are newly empowered over robots, in two very different ways.

First, a company called Orbotix is putting out a robotic ball called the Sphero, expected to retail at about $130. I went hands-on with the Sphero last week at the Pepcom Holiday Spectacular in New York, and had, so to speak, a ball. Orbotix is being very clever about Sphero; it stands to make money not only on the hardware, but on the proliferation of apps that will result (some of which will sell for as much as $9.99).

A rep showed off several ways of controlling the Sphero with your smart phone. First, there was what he termed a sort of “Etch-A-Sketch” approach; you draw lines on your smart phone screen, and the ball will replicate those movements on the floor. Second, there was an old-fashioned R/C approach, in which two dials appeared on the screen, one to control the balls forward and backward movement, another to steer it right or left. There was even a hilarious app called KittyCam that enabled you to shoot video or your perplexed cat while you steered the ball.

The most impressive Sphero innovation, though, was a mode in which you can control the ball with the phone’s gyrometer. Tilt your phone one way or another, and the ball rolls around accordingly. It felt like turning the whole world into one of those Marble Tilt Labyrinth games. I left with the impression that Orbotix’s own apps were only the beginning; thankfully, they’ve opened their API so that other developers can take a crack at Sphero apps of their own.

The folks at Engadget also recently spotted another way to hack and control robots–any household robot, like the Roomba, for instance–at Maker Faire. A company called BirdBrain Technologies has developed something it’s calling the Brainlink system. Brainlink makes good on its tagline: “Repurpose your robot.” Brainlink consists of a triangular wireless module that a rep called “a universal-remote-meets-robot-controller” and a software environment that can be run off of Android phones (or laptops or desktops). If you have the coding chops, you can basically hack your old Roomba or other household robot and turn it into something more like a remote-controlled car. It’s a way of turning robots that “are gathering dust on the shelves” into something fun and useful, as BirdBrain’s rep told Engadget; put another way, it’s “about teaching your old robot some new tricks.” BirdBrain says they plan to start selling the tether by early November, meaning an Android or iPhone could be the perfect robot-steering stocking stuffer this holiday season.

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