It’s been eight months since the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released online. Almost immediately, the internet was full of people pointing at the little ball-shaped droid in the trailer saying “I want one”.
Ask and ye shall receive. Last Friday, BB-8 went on sale around the country for the significant sum of $250. While PC & Tech Authority received a quick preview before the launch, we were able to put the droid to the test this past weekend in a longer session.
It’s often easy to compare a focus on small details as “Apple-esque” in technology, but in this case, it’s apt. Opening the box of the BB-8 makes you feel as though a lot of care has been put into BB-8. Indeed, Sphero CTO Ian Bernstein told us last week that hundreds of hours of engineering have gone into the design and artwork of the droid alone.
Packed in a clean, clutter-free box, BB-8 comes with a USB cable, a charger stand and the droid itself. The toy is charged through cordless inductive charging, although we were able to connect and start using it right out of the box. Be prepared, though, as controlling BB-8 means you have to download the controller app on either the iOS or Google Play stores, and it’s a 100MB app. Consider yourself duly warned.
Connecting to the droid is as simple as activating Bluetooth and holding it closely to the droid – I was actually surprised at how fast it connected, (about six seconds), as the connection during our preview was a little longer. Once you’re connected, BB-8 comes to life – the head piece will start moving around and the tech inside starts to wirr. Right from the start, it’s like holding a small piece of the Star Wars universe in your hand, and while this small, expensive toy is merely a piece of marketing, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe and youthful glee. This is the very first time tech like this has been possible for a toy.
While there are a number of possible modes with which to steer BB-8 around, by far the most popular will be the free range mode. The droid moves swiftly, ensuring that when you move your fingers on the smartphone, there’s a nearly instantaneous response. This is a good thing, as you’re likely to spend a fair amount of time actually figuring out how to drive the thing without crashing into walls. (BB-8 gets mad and flashes red if you bump into too many obstacles.)
In fact, this is probably the biggest frustration with the device itself. BB-8’s speed is hard to control, and it takes a significant amount of time before you can move between “slow” and “incredibly fast”. Being able to navigate obstacles around a cluttered floor should take you a while to get the hang of. Younger kids might be a little impatient and lack the nuance to steer – an important task, considering how expensive this little ball is.
Speaking of the floor, we tested our unit on a few different surfaces. The best performing surface was hardwood floors and tiles, while high carpet proved a little tough for BB-8 to roll around smoothly. Steering is a bit difficult, too, as the “back” of BB-8 is shown by a blinking blue light. Directional problems can be frequent if you don’t orient yourself correctly.
While in the free-drive mode, you can tell BB-8 to perform some pre-prepared actions, including shaking its little head for “no”, and moving up and down for “yes”. Others include providing BB-8 a temporary speed boost and the ability to create patterns, such as a figure-eight. The variety here is welcome – using these in combination with the free driving mode means you get a lot of character out of such a small device.
The second major mode is “patrol”, where BB-8 will move itself around and eventually grow accustomed to a particular area. Like a robot vacuum cleaner, BB-8 eventually learns which areas to avoid and can move without bumping into walls. But be careful – it can bump so hard into walls that the head will fall off. It’s easy enough to reattach, but if you leave it for a while, you might find your dog has run off with it.
There’s some fun here, though. The interface during patrol mode shows what paths the droid takes
Two other features – holograms and voice control – are more novelties than actual features that will give you more use out of BB-8. Holograms can be recorded on your phone but only viewed through an augmented-reality style overlay on the app, and the number of voice commands is limited. In fact, saying “Ok, BB-8” to activate the voice command feature can sometimes require a free tries to get things going. You can tell BB-8 to wake up, run away, or explore.
The voice command isn’t even available yet on the Android app, so many users won’t be able to access this feature out of the box.
Here’s the bottom line – the technology inside Sphero’s BB-8 is what makes this little droid so amazing. The skin is just a piece of Star Wars marketing. It’s a good piece of marketing, and we definitely had fun with our unit, but the amount of enjoyment you get from running around with a little piece of the Star Wars universe is directly proportional to how much you love the movies.
If you don’t? You might be better off looking elsewhere – and not necessarily outside of Sphero’s lineup. The company’s other devices are all built around the idea of putting a robot in every home, and the most recent SPRK model has a big emphasis on teaching kids how to code. The app that controls the Sphero even teaches how to create pseudocode and logical sequences, e.g., “if the Sphero bumps into a wall, create a pattern”, and so on.
As impressive as BB-8 is, it’s impressive for reasons other than pointing towards what will likely be a fun movie. This toy is for Star Wars fans, but Sphero’s future is more than just merchandise – it’s about teaching kids the value in STEM education and the skills they’ll need to contribute to society in the future.