Cheaper than Sphero; three times as fast; better tricks and jumps
Long charge time; not water or pet proof; incompatible with iPad 2 or iPhone 4
The latest robotic plaything from Orbotix (the maker of Sphero) is now available in Australia. Launched at the beginning of the year as the 2B, the tubular version of last year’s Sphero underwent a name change in May, and is now (literally) rolling out to Australian consumers as Ollie.
Like Sphero, it is also made of a durable polycarbonate shell and contains LED lights.
The new toy/app-controlled robot differs from its older sibling in a few notable ways. While the core experience of the Sphero is gameplay, for the Ollie, as its name suggests, its primary raison d’être is driving and doing tricks. It is, as Orbotix says, “the app-controlled robot engineered for speed, programmed for tricks and customised by you”. Ours came with a jump included, and there are other accessories available for physical customisation, such as ultra tyres (rather than the nubby ones included) and flux hubs.
Sphero can zip around the room at speeds of up to two metres per second… but that looks positively snail-like compared to the Ollie, which can go up to three times that (six metres per second or 14 miles per hour).
It comes with just four apps, compared to the 30-plus already out there for Sphero, and is not compatible with Windows, just iOS and Android.
Unlike the inductive-charged Sphero, the Ollie is charged via an included Lightning to USB cable. If you dig into the FAQs, you’ll note that it takes three hours to charge for one hour’s drive time. It does have instant connection to Bluetooth, though, with a 30-metre-plus range (Sphero is a manual job).
Where Ollie trails its predecessor is in its antipathy to water. Being a closed ball, Sphero could take a dive into the nearest creek or billabong quite happily and wait to be rescued by your cheerful blue heeler. Ollie, with its moving parts and gappy shell would not thrive in such a situation, to say the least. Nor would it cope too well with being chewed by the aforesaid four-legged friend. While Sphero sold itself as water and pet proof, Ollie just slyly claims that it “outruns pets” and “hates water”.
Most important though is compatibility, and this is where you may really come unstuck depending on your gear. For Apple device users, Sphero can be driven by any iPhone from 4 onwards, any iPad from 2 onward and the iPod touch (fifth generation) – as long as they are running iOS 6 or later.
Ollie, however, needs an iPhone 4s and iPad (third generation) at least, all running iOS 7. So hopeful Ollie-ites still relying on their trusty iPhone 4 and iPad 2 are out of luck.
All of this is very interesting we hear you say, what’s it like?
Well, as with the original Sphero, the idea is that you control your robotic toy from your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch and stand back in amazement as it whizzes at breakneck speeds around your feet and performs jaw dropping tricks. And all of this should be easy enough to master with about 15 minutes of practice. What we found, however, was that’s probably a conservative estimate and that there is certainly a difference between those who have plenty of console and gameplay experience and those that don’t.
The app graphics and interface are not very self explanatory and it takes a bit of lateral thinking to work out exactly how to control the gadget. It is also extremely sensitive and the slightest touch on the iDevice surface can see the Ollie haring off at high speed on an inevitable collision course with the wall. In an extended trial in the Macworld Australia offices, various controllers experimented, with wildly varying results, although no one seemed to be able to master the supposedly simple art of getting Ollie to travel in a straight line towards a jump.
It was possible to get the Ollie performing some gnarly spins and jumps though, and with very little practice, even if the controller couldn’t quite explain how they’d managed to pull this off.
As to the age-old question, will it be a five-minute wonder that diverts for its novelty factor, but soon sees interest fading and winds up sitting on a shelf gathering dust? Time will tell…
Ollie should be available in Apple stores, Myer, Harvey Norman, Dick Smith and Tech2Go by November at the recommended retail price of $149.95.