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Orbotix Sphero - Smartphone-Controlled Robotic Ball

Look out -- The combination of the power of our smartphones and tablets as portable devices plus wireless connectivity through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and cellular opens wonderful opportunities for interesting and fun interactions.

You can download an app, and turn your smartphone into a remote control for the TV or music in your home, or interact with portable devices like health monitors or wireless trackers.

Or you can have fun with the new version of remote-controlled cars -- the Orbotix Sphero Robotic Ball that you control wirelessly over Bluetooth to drive around and change colors.

Unlike a race car with small tires, the ball can change directions quickly and roll over uneven terrain (including rugs). So it's fun to race and drive fast in open spaces, challenging to steer though obstacle courses in your home, and great entertainment for babies and pets.

And the Sphero is more than a ball -- It's a gaming system, with over 25 apps for iOS and Android, so you can drive and race, play tabletop and multiplayer games, program its movement, and even use it as a controller.

The Sphero is 4.2 inches in diameter, made from a rugged high-impact polycarbonate shell. And it's waterproof up 15 feet, and even floats.

It glows with thousands of colors, and is motorized with an internal guidance system with gyro and accelerometer to control its speed and direction of movement.

The Sphero Original travels at speeds over 3 feet per second, and now is available for around $80.

The new Sphero 2.0 for $130 is twice as fast at up to 7 feet per second, and three times brighter with multicolor LEDs for more colors.

It also comes with two pop-out ramps for more action, and can be upgraded with a Nubby cover ($15) for better traction over rougher terrain (and in water), and to protect against scratches, scuffs, and the elements.

But how do you drive a ball? What direction is forward for a circle anyway? It's simple -- you orient the Sphero by rotating it in place to position a blue "taillight." Then you drive it around relative to that initial aiming direction, although you may need to re-orient after a while of racing around.

To store and recharge, just drop the Sphero in its charging cradle. It uses wireless induction so there's no connector to plug in. When you pick it up, give it a double-shake to enable Bluetooth pairing. It then can run for an hour on a charge.

The Sphero works great indoors, even in small rooms crowded with people and holiday debris, though I typically reduce the maximum speed for better control in confined spaces. In larger rooms or outdoors you then can open it up for speed racing.

The Sphero is especially fun for playing with pets -- being chased by a dog, or chasing after a cat. And it's really entertaining with small children, as babies track the colors and toddlers crawl after it.

See my Holiday Gadgets & Portable Accessories 2013 coverage for more on portable audio and other fun devices.

Find the Orbotix Sphero Robotic Ball on Amazon.com

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