This guy has been keeping me company for the past week:
It’s not just any Spider-Man. It’s connected Spider-Man, from Sphero, the company forever punned as being “on a roll” because its amazing companion toys like the BB-8 robot and Ultimate Lightning McQueen sell like hotcakes did back when hotcakes were a thing.
Sphero’s Spider-Man is different from its stablemates though. He doesn’t move, for starters.
But he does engage with you better than either of them, and you don’t even need a smartphone to make him do it.
Here’s what we learnt about each other in our first week together, why you shouldn’t be scared of him, and the one brilliant feature parents are going to love.
The first thing Spidey said to me was “Download the app and follow the onscreen instructions, okay? Thanks.”
So I entered my age (honestly, because you never know what you’re missing out if you pretend you’re under 18) and wifi credentials. Spider-Man then logs onto your home network.
That might immediately ring some alarm bells for any parents who have read those stories about baby monitors “coming alive”. And yes, putting anything internet-connected anywhere near your kids is worth taking time to think about.
But Sphero’s precautions against digital intruders starts right with choosing your own superhero name. For me, it was always going to be Incredible Patriot.
Incredible Patriot with Electric Breath:
You choose your name from a pre-generated list for two very important reasons. For starters, it’s easier for Spidey to pronounce them than wrangle all the different names in the world.
But it does much more than just make life easier for Spidey’s audio software.
“One of the big things in this product is child safety,” Sphero chief scientist Adam Wilson says. “We’ve seen a lot of what happens when people do that wrong and we wanted to set the bar on how to do it right.”
“When he is listening, he’s never recording our voice. It’s all on-board, nothing is sent to the internet, so the voice is never recorded and never sent out.”
Yes, you have to talk to Spider-Man:
And not only will he talk back, he’ll remember all the conversations you’ve had with him before.
‘TELL ME A JOKE’
Well, go on then:
That’s pretty much the quality across the 100 or so gags Spider-Man can deliver. (The best one so far has been “What do vegetarian zombies eat? Graaaaains.”) And I’ve heard them all, because to be honest, Sphero could have just stripped everything else out of Spider-Man and still had a smash hit on their hands.
That’s because over the next few days, we’ve relived that weird moment when people yell at things thinking it makes them easier to comprehend, over and over again. My nine-year-old is particularly afflicted:
“TELL ME A JOKE.”
“TELL ME A JOKE.”
“TELL ME A JOKE.”
And repeat, 327 times a day. The New Joke Upgrade from Sphero can’t come fast enough. But, as we’ll get to in a minute, this simple trick is half of Spider-Man’s finishing move.
He’s also learnt you can make Spidey throw up by shaking him – the type comedy gold that also never gets old for a nine-year-old boy.
Wilson’s favourite feature, though, is Spider-Man’s “security report”.
“There’s one sitting in my hotel room right now waiting for the cleaning lady,” he says.
Here’s the kind of fright she was in for:
We tried it on the weekend. As we were leaving for sport typically 15 minutes late, one kid took a chance and ran back inside to yell “GUARD MY ROOM”, and I was okay with that because I wanted to know how much detail the Spidey guard feature delivered.
Four hours later, “STAND DOWN”:
That was part spooky, part disappointing. I was hoping for an exact time of entry and exit though. Surely that’s possible?
Most likely, it was the cat. But then again, maybe it wasn’t….
But while in that case, it would be cool to actually have vision of who came and went, it’s important to note that toys spying on kids is not cool. Spider-Man uses an infrared sensor.
Okay, so the most obviously neat bits of Sphero’s Spider-Man aren’t exactly groundbreaking tech. But stick with him for a while – or keep an ear out while your kid does – and you’ll get a bunch of glimpses that eventually consolidate into something far more impressive.
And something that Sphero no doubt hopes answers the question “What’s good value for a toy?”
Yesterday, my six-year-old spent an hour in the back of the car talking to Spider-Man, and it’s causing some frustration. One thing he’s completely failing to learn is that Spidey isn’t as advanced as he thinks he is and won’t respond to insults, requests and general knowledge questions.
But as you stumble upon the phrases Spidey responds to, they unlock on the smartphone app. It’s a good reminder of what you’ve “taught” Spidey to hear, or you can just tap them for a response:
And it’s when phrases like “What can we do?” start getting thrown about regularly that you start to see just how much work has gone into making Spider-Man a proper companion.
Here’s one example. Tell Spidey you want to “do the hero thing” and you’re off on an adventure. According to the scanner, Electro has been seen downtown.
So while you’re swooping through the streets, Spider-Man asks if you’d like to go down to the trash cans or up in the air. You choose, and the story changes.
But the neatest trick comes the next time you happen to get the same quest. Spider-Man remembers your choice and reminds you that last time you went down to check out the trash. “So how about we go up this time?” And again, you get a different adventure.
There are 400 pages of content to work through. Wilson says that equates to “about 100 comic books”.
“I’ve gone for maybe 20-30 minutes and maybe longer,” he says. “He’ll keep asking you stuff and telling you stuff and eventually you’ll get into fighting villains.”
And you have to fight, swooping and jumping Spidey when he tells you to. Like when you had that Superman doll what feels like 100 years ago, except this time you don’t need to supply the sound effects.
Except the first time I waved him around, I got: “Whoa, whoa careful with the merchandise, thunder thumbs.”
And that IR sensor is unnerving. Whenever I’m about to leave the office, Spidey wakes up and says “hello” or something and I half-turn to go back and see who that was. I walked back in after my break on Friday and he said “Heyyy partner”, and I replied “Hey” without thinking about it.
We’d only known each other for 16 hours.
This one came randomly, and on a Saturday night, which was fitting. Someone asked Spidey if he could dance, and was very happy with the response.
His footage – wubba lubba dub dub!:
I won’t embarrass him with a montage of the IRL kicks, spins and thwips DJ Spidey prompted. That footage is locked in for his 18th birthday.
Then, two days later, something wonderful happened.
This changes everything
Just three days into the school week and Spider-Man has paid for himself. With this:
An alarm. It’s another simple feature, which you’ll find in some form in countless other toys.
But three days in a row, I heard him wake the boys up and not be switched off. Instead, a huddle has formed and the inevitable words have blared out at 6.25am:
“TELL ME A JOKE.”
Three days in a row I haven’t fought with, yelled at or physically lifted my children out of their beds still clutching their doonas and sobbing.
It’s like there’s a whole other parent in the house. One that kids respect, even.
Sold. Well, it would be, if Sphero hadn’t sent one out to me.
You’re home now
Child-minding abilities aside, Sphero’s Spider-Man also wins over its other recent hi-tech release, Ultimate Lightning McQueen in two areas. It’s half the price ($249) and you don’t need a smartphone to use it.
There’s an app with games and crime-fighting interactive adventures, but these were callously binned in favour of “TELL ME A JOKE”, “DANCE” and “GUARD MY ROOM”.
Maybe they’ll be discovered later, which is a good thing, because that would only prove Sphero is on the right track when it comes to creating companion toys that kids keep coming back to.
“All of our products are built to be the best,” Wilson says. “We’re not trying to emulate the toy world where you go as cheap as possible for kids. We think that you spend a little bit more to get a better experience, a longer lasting experience, a more durable experience, something authentic that feels like it came from Disney or Pixar.
“That’s challenging but it’s worth it if you can have them coming back to the toy.”
It’s also worth it for the best nightlight ever:
Welcome to the family, Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is available now for $249.99 from Apple Stores, EB Games, Zing Stores, LS Travel (tech2go & News Link).
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