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Dog vs. Robot: Ace Takes a Bite Out of the Sphero Ball Toy

It's a ball. It's a robot. It's a ... dog toy? We review the ball that glows and links to smartphone apps.

 |  Jun 4th 2013  |   5 Contributions


There is nothing more enticing to Ace than a classic game of fetch the ball. Fetching comes naturally to her; I don’t remember teaching her the game at all. We get into a rhythm that’s nearly meditative and always leaves me with a big goofy smile, regardless of where my mind was before we began. There’s nothing more captivating than fetch -– except perhaps the laser pointer, the most un-dog-like toy I can imagine. As with the ball, Ace will hunt that ethereal pinpoint of light until she is dizzy and panting. When it's not in use, Ace sits and stares at the thing intently, willing it to life.

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Ace is an old-fashioned girl and enjoys her analog ChuckIt.

So you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to review Sphero, a ball that glows like a laser. But it’s so much more than that -- it’s a rolling robot you control with your smartphone. Dozens of apps allow Sphero to entertain you with various interactive games, and there's one specifically designed for dogs and cats. If you’re especially crafty, you can even develop your own apps to share with other Sphero aficionados.

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the future.

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Ace is dazzled by this otherworldly laser-ball.

After unpacking Sphero from its neat packaging, I was delighted by its beautiful design. Sphero’s outer layer is white polycarbonate. When in use, it glows in a rainbow of vivid colors. Sphero uses an induction charger, so there are no wires or plugs to mar Sphero’s waterproof surface. I was terrified to place such a work of art directly into my dog’s mouth.

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With practice, Sphero is easy to drive, especially on a slower setting.

I mainly used the Sphero pet app to get acquainted with the feel of driving Sphero around my living room floor. It’s a pretty straightforward design, which I appreciated. Sphero orients itself to where you are sitting or standing, so you can’t move around too much while you are operating it. This was awkward at first (when I play with Ace I jump around more than she does), but I got used to it quickly. You can change Sphero’s speed, with the slower setting being easiest to control. You can also choose the method with which you drive Sphero, either by touching the screen or tilting your phone. I prefer the tilting method because it feels more intuitive.

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It took Ace a little while to get the hang of Sphero.

With a few short test runs, I was ready to release the hound. Initially, Ace appeared confused by Sphero. She stayed close to me as Sphero clattered around the hardwood floor. With some encouragement, she started to engage with it. Since Sphero is rigid plastic and about the size of a tennis ball, Ace couldn’t use her typical technique of gripping enough of the rough surface to carry it around. She tried for a while to get Sphero in her mouth with no luck. I think she became discouraged, because she brought me her favorite snake toy to tug. In subsequent play sessions with Sphero, Ace would chase Sphero a bit and try to bite it, eventually giving up and moving on to something palatable.

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Ace tried to unhinge her jaws like a snake, but was unable to fit Sphero in her mouth.

After I introduced Sphero to a few tech-savvy human friends, I conducted an informal survey to see how much they thought Sphero might cost. Their guesses came in at less than half of Sphero’s actual retail price of about $130. I think the cost of Sphero, while perhaps unremarkable compared to other electronic toys like your smartphone or tablet, is out of range for most dog owners who intend to use Sphero primarily as a dog toy. I would love to see a less expensive Sphero Junior in a smaller size, which could be better mauled by smaller dog maws with smaller wallets.

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Ace chases her most high-tech toy.

After Ace’s hesitant acceptance of Sphero, I did a bit of YouTube research and found plenty of other dogs (and cats!) that get a real kick out of this little round robot. I think that dogs who can pick Sphero up will have an exponentially better time engaging with it. And I discovered another animal who is inexplicably enamored of Sphero: Ace’s Mama. I’m usually pretty old fashioned by San Francisco standards when it comes to electronics (I’ve had my secondhand iPhone for less than six months, and the most high-tech game I play on it is Scrabble) yet there’s something about Sphero that makes me want to explore what else it can do besides confuse my dog. I’m excited to see how armchair developers imagine Sphero in future apps.

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Is Ace standing on her hind legs behind Sphero?! Oh wait, that's just a little gremlin.

Dogster Scorecard for Sphero

  • Quality: Sphero can go under water, over sand, and into your dog’s mouth.
  • Style: It’s almost too beautiful to be a dog toy. Small dogs would appreciate a junior-sized Sphero.
  • Function: With practice, driving Sphero becomes intuitive.
  • Creativity: Sphero is a glowing robot ball. Need I say more?
  • Value: Sphero’s high-tech price might be out of range for some puppy parents, especially if you have vet bills and obedience school tuition to pay.

Bottom line

If you’re looking to splurge on a treat you can share with your dog, consider rolling Sphero towards the top of your list!

We’d love to hear from anyone who’s had a chance to give Sphero a spin or owned other high-tech dog toys. What was your experience? What else should we review in this column? Let us know in the comments!

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