Review: Three iOS-app-controlled toys
There’s something endearing about a tiny, remote-controlled toy. It’s nearly impossible not to love the way it romps around your carpet, gets stuck under your desk, and antagonizes your housepets. We got our hands on three little robotic friends that can be controlled through your iOS device and, of course, we took them for drives.
Desk Pets Tankbot
Even though it can be controlled by an iPhone, Desk Pets’s $30 Tankbot ( ) has a bit of a mind of its own. It has two activity options that cause it to wander around by itself–either in Amazing Touchless Navigation mode, which uses an infrared sensor to avoid obstacles, or in Autonomous Personality mode, which uses various pre-programmed patterns for moving and displaying light and sounds. The Tankbot’s tank-inspired treads allow it to navigate the most treacherous obstacles on your desk, yet it’s light enough to run over your keyboard without pressing any keys.
In either activity mode, the Tankbot wanders around, making what can only be described as velocirapter-like noises as it approaches objects. The only navigational problem is that in Touchless Navigation mode, the vehicle didn't always stop when it approached black objects. For example, when it approached a pile of black wire on the floor, it continued forward it until it eventually flipped over onto its back. The Tankbot also has some trouble with the edges of furniture, since its sensors are looking for objects completely blocking its path. Luckily the Tankbot can handle a little bit of a fall, though the first time this happened, while the vehicle was lying on the floor upside-down, I experienced a feature that made me simultaneously love and hate the Tankbot more: It cried.
When you want to take control of your Tankbot—called Smartphone Control mode—you plug an infrared transmitter into your iOS device’s headphone jack. You then use the free DeskPets app to drive the Tankbot from up to three meters away using two onscreen joysticks and a Stop button. (The transmitter uses L1154F batteries–a fact that I discovered when the included batteries died.) The two-joystick interface is not as intuitive as iOS-controlled vehicles that use your iOS device’s built-in accelerometer, or even a simple 4-direction controller, but after using it for a few minutes, I found it was easy enough to get the hang of it. The Tankbot is very responsive, as well.
The Tankbot charges using a flip-out USB connector. When plugged into a USB port on my MacBook Pro, the Tankbot stuck conveniently out of the side. When charged, the Tankbot can run around for about 15 minutes before slowing down.
Bottom line: The Tankbot was easy to control once the I got a handle on the functions of the joysticks, but for me, the most enjoyable aspect of this toy was just letting it roam off on its own.
Dexim AppSpeed Monster Truck
SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! That’s right, folks. You can have your own miniature monster-truck show with Dexim’s $70, iOS-controlled AppSpeed Monster Truck ( ). Like the Tankbot, the Monster Truck is controlled using a hardware transmitter, but this one uses a radio-frequency (RF) signal and plugs into your iOS device’s 30-pin dock-connector port; it can be used up to 15 meters away from the Truck. You download the free DFSpeed iOS app to control the truck; the app lets you use either Multi-Touch control or your iOS device’s accelerometer. In addition to these two control options, Dexim’s app also has a Zig-Zag and Spin setting that automatically sends the Monster Truck driving around the room, disregarding any and all objects that are unfortunate enough to be in its path. In an odd twist–and I could not make this up–if you put the truck in Programme mode, the vehicle will do a dance to a cover of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E.”
The AppSpeed Monster Truck’s controls are very easy to use, and the app’s navigation is simple and intuitive. During my testing, the only thing that was lacking in the truck was the monster force implied by the look of the toy. I wanted to be able to crush Hot Wheels cars and drive the AppSpeed Monster Truck over the puny obstacles on my desk, leaving only miniature destruction behind. Unfortunately, even at speed level 15, the highest speed setting, the monster truck was unable to drive over even a line of pens. On the other hand, when driving on the ground, this little truck can go fast enough to give your housepet a workout.
The AppSpeed Monster Truck charges using either a USB cable or a portable, three-AAA-battery charger. The vehicle takes only 15 minutes to charge, although that charge gives you only five to ten minutes of run time, depending on how fast and extreme your driving is. The vehicle is a little over six inches long and three inches wide.
Bottom line: The AppSpeed Monster Truck is fast and easy to control but lacks the ability to climb over objects, monster-truck-style.
Promising hours of fun—for you and your pets—the $130 Sphero ( ) is a glowing, app-controlled orb that connects to your iOS device via Bluetooth to allow you to control the ball from up to 50 feet away. Launch the free Sphero Drive app, and the first thing you do is orient the Sphero to yourself with a two-finger gesture. Once Sphero knows where you are, it will follow your directions using joystick controls, classic-RC controls, or an accelerometer-based tilt mode, reaching speeds of up to three feet per second.
The Sphero sports an internal LED, and you can customize the LED to nearly any color you can dream of. You can also tweak the Sphero’s behavior for the best performance on wood or carpet. After charging for about three hours on its clever inductive charger, Sphero will roll around for up to an hour.
Orbotix offers several other apps for the Sphero that let you do more than just drive. The Sphero Cam app lets you capture video and photos (on your iOS device) as you drive Sphero, so you won’t miss a second of your cat’s reaction to this glowing invader. Sphero Golf turns your iPhone into the club and the Sphero into, well, the ball, as you use the accelerometer in your device to send Sphero across the floor towards a target. My favorite of the bunch, though, is Sphero Draw N’ Drive, an app that lets you trace out a course for the Sphero, and then have it follow that course. To clear the canvas, you just shake your device and start over again. (The Sphero Drive app also lets the orb double as a Magic 8 Ball, answering Yes/No questions with either a green or red pulsing light.)
One of the only confusing things about the Sphero’s iOS controls is that if you’re walking around with the Sphero, the controls do not automatically change for your new position. In other words, if you start out to the south of Sphero and then step over to the north side of it, the controls will be backwards. This isn’t a huge problem, though, as you can re-orient your position relative to the Sphero at any time using a two-finger gesture. Update: Orbotix pointed out that the Drive app includes a Heading Auto-Adjust feature that automatically re-orients the controller with respect to the Sphero. My only real regret when testing Sphero is that I didn’t have a cat to play with it.
Bottom line: Sphero is a fun and versatile iOS-controlled toy that’s easy to use and entertaining for both you and your pets.
Updated 3/23/2012, 4:53pm to add information about Sphero's auto-adjust feature.