Star Wars BB-8 roadtested

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Star Wars BB-8 roadtested

The incredible rolling, bleeping roboball

It begins. Starting today, until at least December when The Force Awakens hits theatres, you won’t be able to walk a few blocks without seeing the words “Star Wars” plastered on a poster, moving vehicle or now, the toy aisle at a department store.

If you’ve been spared the news, let me pop your bubble – today is Force Friday. Disney is announcing all the new toys and merchandise to support Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and also, make bucketloads of cash. Everything from plastic lightsabres, Lego sets and action figures to books will be hitting shelves today.

One of the most anticipated pieces of merchandise is a robotic version of BB-8, the soccer ball-shaped droid featured in both Force Awakens trailers. (Even last November, fans on Twitter were calling for a toy version).

PC & Tech Authority were given a demo of a BB-8 unit last week.

Some quick background. This toy is made by Sphero, a robotics company founded in 2010. The company builds what it calls “connected toys”. Essentially, a Sphero is a ball you control with a smartphone. A range of these area already available in toy stores everywhere. But the company is big on making these educational – you can program within the phone to make your Sphero do cool tricks, patterns, and so on. It’s a way to teach kids the basic logic of coding.

Long story short, Sphero helped create the technology that made BB-8 possible in The Force Awakens. And they were able to create a miniature, toy version – the one we tried out.

But given Sphero’s bigger goals of “putting a robot in any home”, BB-8 shouldn’t just be seen as a stand-alone product, but as a charming addition to the company’s strategy.

First up – the toy looks like the BB-8 in the trailers. That may seem like a small detail, but it isn’t. The paint and design makes this little robot feel like it was actually ripped out of the movie. It’s slightly larger than a tennis ball, which may disappoint some buyers hoping for a huge version, but it’s cute enough – any larger and it could be difficult to roll.

The Sphero BB-8 is controlled through a smartphone app. The little ball lights up with blue LEDs to show you which side is the “back”, and then you can start rolling away. It takes some getting used to – BB-8 is pretty speedy, and if you’re inexperienced, (like us), you’ll bump into everything you see. But it’s responsive, which is key. If it was sluggish to start moving you’d get frustrated with the entire experience, but knowing you can zip back the way you came after making a mistake means you’re always challenged, never frustrated.

It’s delightful, challenging fun.

There are nice little touches to the design and interface – detailed markings and grooves. If you bump BB-8 into too many corners or walls, he glows red and a frustrated series of beeps follow.

There are a few different modes contained in the app, which the Sphero representative explained could be updated when the film is released to add more features. (We weren’t told what these could be, but it sounds as if material contained in the film could make its way to the way BB-8 behaves).

The first is the free-range mode, where you can control BB-8 as you like.

The second is a messaging feature, which allows you to record a video message through the phone itself, and then have BB-8 display that message as a “hologram”. Except it’s not really a hologram. You view the message through an augmented reality feature on the app, which makes it look as though the toy is displaying your message on the surface directly in front of it. It’s fine as a novelty, although I doubt it’ll get much widespread use.

Another mode allows you to move BB-8 in a bunch of different patterns, including a figure eight. A voice activation feature lets you speak voice commands into the smartphone to move it around, while a “patrol” mode basically lets BB-8 wander around on its own. It scans the area through trial and error, and eventually will start learning where not to bump into.

We didn’t get to play with that feature very much due to time, but in the few minutes we saw it in play BB-8 appeared to be learning where to go to avoid obstacles. You could imagine putting this down at home, or even in an office, and letting BB-8 do its thing.

The toy itself makes beeps and boops, but they’re only sounded through the smartphone app, which is a little disappointing but completely understandable. It’s hard enough to make this tech work by itself, let alone put speakers in it.

We’ll have a full review of BB-8 up next week. But it’s important to look at BB-8 in the context of Sphero’s larger offerings. Even though Sphero founder and CTO Ian Bernstein says the Star Wars deal was somewhat a “right place at the right time” occurrence, the company has loftier goals.

“We want to put a robot in every home,” he says.

“I would imagine these home robots wouldn’t be tied to other IP. We’re not turning into a licensee company…we’re looking to create not a toy droid, but a real droid.”

“I hope people understanding we’ve gone to very great lengths. We’re all perfectionists, and just to see the artwork and the decoration – the decoration was not easy, it took hundreds of hours of engineering to get it all perfect.”

That engineering is all the more impressive considering Sphero engineers weren’t able to watch any footage of the film.

“We’ve tried to be as authentic as we possibly can, and I hope people see it,” says Bernstein.

The Sphero BB-8 model is out in stores today. We’ll publish a full review of the unit next week. 

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