You don't have to be good at driving videogames to have a blast driving Ollie, the extremely fast, app-controlled robot. Its elongated shape and independently spinning wheels make Ollie much easier to drive than its big brother Sphero, letting the friendly little speed demon spin, drift, and zoom along at up to 14 miles per hour.
Teased at CES as Sphero 2B, Ollie is finally shipping worldwide, starting with one app, which is focused on driving and doing tricks. While the totally spherical Sphero looks the same from every angle, Ollie has a front and a back that stay still, since the two wheels hold it off the floor just a bit.
You still have to use the app to line it up relative to your own position, as you do with Sphero, so that when you swipe forward, back, right, and left on the touchscreen, Ollie rolls that same way on the floor. But I found I didn't have to keep realigning Ollie as often as I did Sphero. Plus, Ollie is three times faster, and the extra speed makes it a total blast to drive--and just as fun to crash.
Built for speed, tuned for tricks
Ollie is easy to pair with Bluetooth LE to a smartphone or tablet, with the Ollie app recognizing and pairing with the robot automatically. When you hold the device horizontally, half the screen becomes the driving controls, but you don't have to look at what your fingers are doing--just swipe in any direction, and Ollie will rotate and go, go, go.
The other half of the screen is for tricks, and you can just swipe away in any direction here too, to make Ollie whirl like a dervish or do a herky-jerky dance, spinning up on one end. But you might want to glance down occasionally as you do this, because with every trick you pull off, spin move you execute, or incline or ramp you launch Ollie off of, a little message pops up on the screen to give your trick a ridiculous name that sounds like something you'd hear an X-Games announcer say: something like "sick spin triple steam roll." Rad.
The included set of rubbery tires let Ollie tear up most surfaces, and developer Orbotix will offer different types of treads in other colors, along with swap-out hubcaps, to let you customize your robot. But I had more fun driving Ollie without the tires, when giving it a quick turn on carpet or hardwood would execute a super cool drift move that I can never seem to pull off in driving games for consoles. Ollie is also super rugged, so you can crash it into walls or steer it down the stairs without worry it'll break.
Sphero's speedy little brother
Ollie charges with a micro-USB cable, which is a bit more convenient than Sphero's wireless induction charging base. That means you can't drive Ollie in water, while you can with the spherical, all-sealed-up Sphero. It's not a huge loss--the novelty of driving Sphero through puddles or in a shallow bathtub wears off pretty quickly anyway. And the lack of a charging base could contribute to Ollie's price being $30 cheaper, at $99 compared to Sphero's $129.
Since Sphero is a sphere, it also works in more games than just driving. A few of my favorites let your Sphero be a golf ball, or a controller for a top-down shooter, or the color-changing hot potato in a multiplayer tabletop party game. So far I've only gotten to test Ollie's main driving app, but Orbotix told me Ollie would eventually also work with two Sphero apps designed to teach programming basics to kids: Draw N Drive, and Macrolab.
If you want your kids to learn about robotics, you could consider the Play-i robots (still not shipping yet, unfortunately), the fuller range of apps for Sphero 2.0, or even some Lego Mindstorms kits. But if you want your kid (or, sure, the kid in you) to get hooked on a fast-driving, trick-pulling toy robot enough to develop an interest in robotics to begin with, Ollie is a great time.