How the Sony Rolly Worked


It lighted up, it danced, and it played music. The Sony Rolly was a handheld disco freak, and it was perhaps ahead of its time.
It lighted up, it danced, and it played music. The Sony Rolly was a handheld disco freak, and it was perhaps ahead of its time.
Courtesy Sony

Just a few short years ago, flash-memory based MP3 players were revolutionary, heralding the end of cassette and CD players. Flash memory had (and still has) so many advantages over older technologies. You could write and rewrite to it as many times as you wanted. It was useable in USB storage keys, camera memory cards, solid-state hard drives and much more. And unlike older music players, it didn't have any moving parts.

Well, that last point isn't quite true when it came to the Sony Rolly SEP (Sound Entertainment Player). The Rolly was a music player that not only thumped out nasty beats -- it also danced and jived and lit up ecstatically while churning out your favorite Chemical Brothers song. In short, the Rolly was a music player combined with a simple robot, designed to mesmerize you not only with music but also with choreographed and interactive dancing functions.

If your eyebrow arches upward in confusion or doubt at that description, don't worry, you're not alone. In fact, this unusual blend of features might be what stalled Rolly's rollout. As of this writing, it's still available in limited quantities from resellers in the United States and around the world, but Sony doesn't actively promote the device like it did upon its introduction in 2007.

The Rolly's shape was intentionally eye-catching, with an egg-like exterior. It weighed only 10 ounces (300 grams) and measured 4 inches (10 centimeters) long and 2.5 inches (6.5 centimeters) high, meaning it fit neatly in the palm of your hand.

You wouldn't want to hold it, though. To unleash the joy of the Rolly, you had to set it free, whether on your living room floor or on the kitchen counter.

When the company set out to make Rolly, it sought a way to visually express an invisible but powerful medium: music. By giving the player a unique but elegant shell, multi-colored lights and a capability for coordinated motion that offered hints of emotion, Sony hoped to engage music lovers' eyes and ears simultaneously.

Spinning with Specs

Rolly couldn’t dance while it was in its cradle, but it still played music while its battery charged.
Rolly couldn’t dance while it was in its cradle, but it still played music while its battery charged.
Courtesy Sony

Rolly's bitty size and weird shape might lead you to believe that it lacks serious technological punch. But you'd be wrong.

Sony loaded the Rolly with 2GB of internal memory. That was enough capacity to store more than 34 hours of music loaded at a quality of 128 kbps (kilobits per second) or nearly 14 hours of even higher-quality 320kbps audio.

Suffice it to say that your music collection would have outlasted the battery, which was rated for about five hours of music-only playback or four hours of music and dancing function. You refreshed the lithium-ion battery by resting Rolly on a charging cradle.

You could use a USB cable to transfer music to the internal memory, but you didn't have to stop there. Rolly had a Bluetooth receiver with a 10-foot (3-meter) range, meaning you could stream music directly from any Bluetooth device, such as a smartphone or laptop.

Sony gave the Rolly two wheels, one at each end of the device. These rubbery wheels worked in harmony to rotate and spin in all sorts of patterns. Just adjacent to the wheels were embedded LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that changed color and flashed to the beat of your favorite Alabama 3 tune.

The Rolly didn't have a headphone jack; it just wasn't meant to be an idle personal music player. Instead, it had two 0.7-inch (20-millimeter) speakers. And those speakers, dear reader, are where Rolly unveiled its true spirit.

When you started a song, little arms near the speakers automatically unfolded from Rolly's body, like hinged ears. As the music began, the arms began flapping frantically to a wild disco beat, or more slowly to a gentle Norah Jones crooner. If you wanted, you could've spent roughly $15 to change out the plain white or black arms for more exciting hues.

One of Rolly's key components was an accelerometer, which detected when the device was vertical or horizontal and subsequently changed how Rolly responded to commands. In a vertical position, the top wheel let you change songs and the bottom wheel adjusted volume. To shuffle songs, you just pressed the Rolly's "play" button and -- appropriately -- began shaking the device.

The Rolly would dance its little digital heart out for you by responding automatically to the beat and style of music you favored.

Rolly, Tone Detective

Credit Sony with its willingness to make an unusual, egg-shaped music robot. The Rolly didn’t quite make it commercially, but its innovative design will be hard to forget.
Credit Sony with its willingness to make an unusual, egg-shaped music robot. The Rolly didn’t quite make it commercially, but its innovative design will be hard to forget.
Courtesy Sony

You might have been perfectly content watching Rolly improvise its dance moves to "Billie Jean." Or perhaps you wished it would add just a little more flair with its arms as Michael Jackson hit the high notes. With the included Choreographer software, you could program dance moves galore for your little Rolly.

The program analyzed your music for both tone and beat. In "automatic" mode, Rolly determined the most appropriate motion for each song's characteristics. Quick beats generally resulted in more excited motions, while slower, softer tunes meant a more subdued Rolly.

The software (which is used for Sony VAIO products and the GIGA JUKE) worked thanks to Sony's 12 Tone Analysis technology, which analyzes songs for genre, mood, chord progression, structure and other characteristics.

Tone Analysis starts its job by checking a track for tone. In a musical scale, each octave has 12 detectable tones, which the software pinpoints. After registering tonal data and the timing of certain sounds, the program can pick up on other important characteristics like chords, tempo, beat, key and more.

Older music analysis technologies sometimes treated elements such as beat and tempo as discrete data. But Sony's program values these inputs holistically, which supposedly results in more accurate modeling.

After Tone Analysis completes its work, it assigns metadata descriptors to each track. That metadata basically offers a quick summary of the song, such as genre or mood, which can be used to quickly arrange songs in playlists or perform searches.

For example, if you really love Chicane and you wanted Rolly to play similarly fast, epic songs, the device might queue up Tiesto or Moby. Likewise, if you were in a somber mood, the application might spin up The Cure or Nine Inch Nails.

But music was only half of Rolly's fun, as you'll discover on the next page.

An Eggstraordinary Dancer

You already know that Rolly let you play robot DJ, but you could also manually control Rolly's dance moves with the Custom Choreography capability. The software's interface was divided into two sections: the motion editor on one side and on the other, a graphic showing the moves you were currently creating.

Play back the song you wanted to use, and the software visually displayed the beat. This let you know right where to program a specific movement to match the audio. You didn't have to manually program an entire routine -- you could use parts of Sony's preset moves, which you downloaded from the company Web site. On the same site, you could download moves created by other users and share your own triumphant motion masterpieces.

Sony also included a list of presets for Rolly's lights. You could tweak and play with these to your heart's content, as there were more than 700 lighting variations. Between the motion and lighting sequences, the possibilities for complex desktop disco were pretty much endless.

Sony rolled out the Rolly in Japan in 2007 and the United States and other parts of the world in 2008, but it never became a hot-selling item. That may have been because people weren't quite sure what to make of Rolly, but slow sales also likely resulted due to the $200-plus price tag.

In spite of its halting popularity, you can still find Rolly on retail and auction sites across the Web. Splurge a bit and you'll have yourself an MP3 player that not only stands out but also rocks and rolls to a rhythm all its own.

Author's Note

Sony did its best to bring a visual element to music by introducing the Rolly MP3 player. The results were decidedly mixed. Some people were put off by the Rolly's price. Others didn't want to mess with the product's manual choreography, which also happened to be one of its standout features, but only if you had the patience and time to use it.

With clever programming, though, Rolly was capable of some pretty amazing feats. Search the product's name on YouTube and you can browse through a lot of fascinating Rolly dance moves. It seems unlikely that Rolly will make any sort of comeback, but maybe the next dancing music player we see will succeed where Rolly did not.

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Sources

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