It's been a busy year for Sphero, with the release of products like R2-D2, Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen. But the robotic toy startup is still making non-licensed, non-tie in products too — including the Sphero Mini, its most affordable toy yet.
"We wanted to make Sphero products accessible to everyone," said co-founder and Chief Software Architect Adam Wilson.
The Mini is basically a shrunk down version of the Sphero 2.0 — it's 42 millimeters tall and 42 millimeters wide, and it weighs just 46 grams. To get it down to this size, the team had to sacrifice some of 2.0's capabilities, like wireless charging. (Wilson added said the Mini isn't waterproof, and it's less durable.)
Still, the Mini has most of its larger sibling's features. You can use a smartphone app to drive it around, use it as a controller for Sphero smartphone games and even program it using the Sphero Edu app.
The Mini also includes a new feature called Face Drive, where the toy is scanning your face and its motions are guided by your expressions. I tried this out myself — it was both fun and unnerving to see the Mini rolling in different directions depending on whether I was smiling, frowning or tilting my head.
Wilson said there's technology inside that allows a Mini to detect when it's close to another Mini, though there are no features yet that take advantage of this.
Perhaps the other question is: Given Sphero's high-profile work with Disney, what's the selling point of a Sphero-branded product like this one, when it isn't based on a big-budget movie or beloved character? Wilson said that non-licensed toys allow Sphero to experiment with new features and technology, like Face Drive, and also to stay true to its DNA of making products that are "always programmable, always hackable."
"For us, it's just fun to build our own campaigns and our own worlds," he said. "And with our technology, we like to build it here first. We don't like to innovate on licensed products."
The Sphero Mini is available now for $49.99 — which makes it just about half the price of Sphero 2.0. Mini bowling pins and cones are included, and if you want to mix up your Mini's look, you can also buy shells of different colors.