Sphero Spider-Man toy is like an Amazon Echo with superpowers

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Voice control is in our phones, it’s in our smart speakers, it’s even in our games consoles. Could the next area to be touched by the voice recognition revolution be toys? That’s what robotic toy manufacturer Sphero seems to think. Leaving the gears and motors of its BB-8 and Cars 3 bots to one side, it’s going all-in on voice for its new Spider-Man toy.

Once again tapping up Disney for a key licensed property (Marvel exists these days as a subsidiary of the Mouse House), Sphero’s Spider-Man toy is a stylized take on the comic book hero, looking not unlike the popular Funko Pop models with his oversized head and squat body.

Standing roughly a foot tall, he’s static aside from moveable arms and expressive eyes, which use LCD screens to shift and change to show Spidey’s changing mood.

A quipping wallcrawler

It’s the circuitry and smart tech under the plastic though that sets the Sphero Spider-Man apart from other toy takes on the wallcrawler. Built on a custom fork of Android, Sphero’s Spider-Man is capable of holding a basic conversation with its owner, with a spot-on voice actor delivering a lengthy, branching and interactive script from a Marvel comics scribe.

You’ll pick from a selection of superhero names with which Spidey will identify you, and play a number of voice-enhanced games with the character. IR sensors and motion detectors let the toy react convincingly to how he’s being played with, being (for instance) intelligently aware of when we weren’t being quite enthusiastic enough with our superhero jumps during a crimefighting session.

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Security senses tingling

The real Spidey would surely have a quip regarding security in a toy that’s listening to what your kids say, but Sphero has taken efforts to ensure privacy is paramount. 

For starters, the Sphero Spider-Man won’t start listening until you push in the spider-crest button on his chest (one push for a quick game, a double press to kick off one of the 25 longer ‘Super Villain Missions’, which are a bit like voice-controlled Choose Your Own Adventure quests). And though Spider-Man can receive content updates through a connected iPhone or Android app, it’s closed off from the rest of the experience – there’s no cloud processing being done in order for Spidey to deliver his one liners.

It’s the content updates that will certainly make the toy one to watch. Sphero will be able to update Spider-Man to take into account the events of new Marvel storylines, and constantly expand on his repertoire of voice commands. The toy line as a whole seems ripe for expansion – imagine an Iron Man Sphero that could have a chat with this Spider-Man? Indeed, the packaging for Spidey shows the villain Venom sporting a similar look to the pint-sized webslinger, so it may well yet be in the works.

More to come for True Believers

Sphero’s Spider-Man has plenty of in-jokes to please parents – for example, overly shaking him will see Spidey pretend to go into a progress-wiping factory reset mode which is sure to send kids into a meltdown and have adults in stitches. 

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But as a toy design he’s clearly aimed at young pre-teen kids. Chunky and with a rubberised grip feel to his suit, the Sphero Spider-Man has a good amount of weight to it, and looks as though it could take a beating without doing too much damage. Even the simple charging base which Spider-Man stands on to refuel seems designed with children and simplicity in mind.

There are kinks to be ironed out before Spider-Man goes on sale at £149.99 / $149.99 this summer (AU availability is yet to be confirmed). For starters, the syntax of your voice interactions with Spider-Man has to be quite specific to what the toy’s expecting to hear in order to get a response. That’ll be aided by prompts from the accompanying mobile app (which will also track your progress through the voice missions) but will hinder naturalistic interactions with the toy. 

Still, there’s a lot of promise here, especially when the line almost-inevitably expands to include the wider Marvel roster. We'll have more on the Sphero Spider-Man shortly, so keep checking back for further updates.

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