The co-founders of Boulder, Colorado, start-up Orbotix are having a very good time at the International CES this year. For one, the twentysomethings are debuting a cool augmented reality game that you play by controlling a small robotic ball with your smartphone or tablet. But they get even more excited when they talk about what they did earlier in the week.
They're hackers at heart, so the weekend before CES opened, they entered AT&T's hackathon challenge. They quickly built a rocket that they could launch with a swipe of a finger across a smartphone. But the idea hit a snag: AT&T had to check with the Federal Aviation Administration to clear airspace for the thing to actually launch. Could Orbotix launch indoors instead and avoid the hassle? No; no, it could not, said AT&T.
Even without a successful rocket launch, the co-founders walked away with a $10,000 prize. "They knew it worked," Adam Wilson, co-founder and chief software architect, says of the judges.
The Orbotix co-founders have built robots since their adolescence, and their original plan for the company was to build a hackable platform that would let any developer use code to control physical devices--a big idea if you consider how many things around your house you might want to control with your phone. With some feedback from their mentors, they decided they needed a real product first to prove the value of the platform. That's where something called Sphero comes in.
Walk up to the company's booth at CES--its third time at the show--and you'll see a handful of white balls whirling around the floor, controlled by employees wielding iPhones and iPads. That's Sphero. Come a little closer, and you'll notice that a little robot comes to life as a 3-D character on their screens. You can use Sphero to throw cupcakes at Sharky the Beaver or zap some zombies, if you prefer monsters in your video games.
Sound like just another silly game company? Orbotix is anything but.
In 2011 Orbotix, a graduate of start-up accelerator Boulder Techstars, sold around 400 Spheros, which retail for $129. The company says it shipped tens of thousands during the most recent holiday season. The product is sold through Apple stores, Brookstone, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. As for who buys the little white balls, it runs the gamut from little kids to software developers. A university even uses Sphero to help teach programming to students. "It's a lot more satisfying to see a real thing move off a table by writing a bit of code," CTO and co-founder Ian Bernstein says.
That's really the crux of what Orbotix is doing. "Everything we make needs to be hackable," Wilson says. Third-party developers have created more than 20 iOS and Android apps for Sphero. "If you want to control something with your weird Linux machine, you can do that.
"It's so nerdy. There's no way there's a nerdier product here," Wilson says with a laugh.
Good thing they came to biggest nerd show on earth.