Sphero Ollie: A Devilishly Speedy Toy Controlled By Your Phone

Sphero Ollie: A Devilishly Speedy Toy Controlled By Your Phone

Ollie is the latest phone-controlled toy from the developers behind the Sphero robotic ball. For Ollie, the team actually reduced the toy’s functionality so that it’s basically just a super fast cylinder. It races around on two wheels, spinning, jumping and crashing into stuff like a drunk speed skater.

Ollie is now available for pre-order for $US100, and it ships on September 15. You don’t have to wait till then to hear our impressions, however. After hours of playing with the contraption, I’m convinced of two things: It’s a pretty entertaining way to burn through time… but it’s the kind of toy that takes more than a few hours to master.

Ollie is a polycarbonate cylinder the size of a large soup can. It’s got two wheels that spin independently of each other. The wheels are smooth by default, but the basic Ollie ships with a set of knobby tires that give you a little more traction. Down the line, the company plans to sell additional sets of tires, hubcaps, ramps, and all manner of other accessories.

You control Ollie through apps for iOS or Android. At launch there will be four different apps available, but prior to the announcement, I was only able to try out a basic Ollie app with directional controls, as well as a “Tricks Mode.”

When you fire up the app, it automatically searches for a nearby Ollie, and when you touch your phone to the toy, they pair together via Bluetooth. Ollie’s lights will come to life, and its wheels will spin. The Bluetooth range is 30 meters — far enough that I never lost control, even outdoors. Ollie charges via USB, and gets about an hour of driving on a full charge.

The first thing you’ll want to do once you’re connected is orient Ollie using a little slider, so that it’s facing “forward,” so to speak.

Then, in the basic mode, you control Ollie using a 360-degree touchscreen joystick. Though the control scheme is familiar from playing video games, I have to admit that using the touchscreen to manipulate a real world object is a bit of a challenge. In part, that’s because Ollie is round and so it’s not always obvious whether it’s facing forwards or backwards, especially just after it’s slammed into a wall or done a bunch of flips at its top speed of 14 miles per hour. If you’re driving an RC car, you generally know which way it’s facing. With Ollie, not so much.

This becomes more complicated when you rotate the phone into landscape orientation, switching Ollie into “Tricks Mode.” In addition to the joystick, you also get a a trick pad. Sliding your finger around this pad causes the wheels to spin more dramatically out of phase with each other, allowing you to do some wacky moves, which the app enthusiastically congratulates you for. Pressed at the right angle in conjunction with the regular joystick, you can spin, wobble, drift, flip over, and so on. As a rule of thumb, imagine that if you can do it on a snowboard, you can probably do it with Ollie either off of a ramp or on flat ground. Unfortunately, doing tricks is a little more haphazard than Sphero’s very polished marketing suggests. It’s a bit like the difference between what you and a professional stunt driver are capable of behind the wheel. It’s going to take a ton of practice before you can hit a ramp and pull off a perfect 720 in the sky, but I suppose part of the fun is building up to that point.

(Sphero’s video also suggests you take Ollie to your local skate park. It’s got plenty of power to climb ramps or even a small quarter pipe. That said, taking Ollie to your local skate park is not advisable. The skaters will/should beat you up for bringing a toy into an athletic space.)

As Ollie zooms around, it makes horrible crunching sounds each time it smacks into anything, but it survives. For example, it weathered a clanging path down three flights of a steel fire escape just fine. Sure, Ollie doesn’t look brand new after a few hours of torture, but there wasn’t any major damage. Just a few nicks and scrapes here and there.

You’ll definitely want to adjust Ollie’s settings depending on where you use it. You can set it for specific conditions, such as open or closed spaces and hard or soft surfaces. Or, you can directly adjust speed, acceleration, and handling. Slowing Ollie down a little bit makes driving a little easier, but also a little less exciting. In other words, it’s awesome that Ollie can zip around as quickly as it can, but that speed and its potential manoeuvrability also introduces a challenge.

As you can see in the video, I really suck at using this toy, and sometimes I found it downright frustrating and almost humorously difficult to do something as simple as thread Ollie between two stationary objects. But every now and then you get into a groove, and it’s satisfying to watch Ollie drift with style. I’m not sure I’ll hang in there long enough to get really good, but if you do, there’s clearly a payoff.

Though we haven’t given Ollie a full review, $US100 seems like a fair price for the entertainment value you’re likely to get here.

Pictures: Nick Stango