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Orbotix: Where Mobile Apps and the Toy Industry Collide

A startup that invented the world's first smartphone-controlled ball and that's just the beginning.
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Consider the ball. It's a toy to children, rolling prey to dogs and a crucial instrument to athletes.

But for Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson, the 28-year-old founders of Denver-based Orbotix, it's the pinnacle of robotics and a prime example of how smartphones will one day interact with the world.

Ballers: (from left) Ian Bernstein, Adam Wilson and Paul Berberian. Photography by Dana Romanoff

Orbotix released its first product, the $130 Sphero, in December 2011. A grapefruit-size orb that connects to iOS and Android devices via Bluetooth, Sphero is, simply, the world's first smartphone-controlled ball. Dreamed up by Bernstein, a robotics whiz, and Wilson, a software hacker and Bluetooth master, the device consists of motors, processors, gyroscopes and accelerometers, which propel it; LED lights, which change its color; and a sturdy polycarbonate shell that can withstand a 6-foot drop onto concrete. 

A variety of apps let users drive, fling, putt and roll Sphero anywhere within a 50-foot range. Another, Chromo, turns the ball into a type of 3-D controller that interacts with a game on a user's handheld device. The Orbotix team believes Sphero has the potential to be a gaming console unto itself, like Xbox.

But that only scratches the surface of its potential. To push things further, Orbotix created a software developers' kit so that others can build apps for the device. Internet videos of users' creations abound, such as one showing the Sphero with theremin-like musical properties.

After watching his 11-year-old play with Sphero, Mark Solon, managing partner of Highway 12 Ventures, wanted in. Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group, says the company combines "two things we look for: an amazing product and people who are obsessed with it." (Both Solon and Feld have joined Orbotix's board of directors.)

CEO Paul Berberian met Bernstein and Wilson through the famed TechStars program. "If something needs to be made, they make it," he says. "They're not afraid of any piece of technology." To date, the startup has raised more than $6 million.

The plan now is to refine the hardware platform, create and sell innovative games and see what evolves at the intersection of the $20 billion mobile apps space and the $80 billion toy industry. "It's a blank slate," Berberian says, noting that they've even been approached about using the technology to position airplanes on aircraft carriers. "It's a sign of what's coming." 


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