All hail the real life Star Wars BB-8


In the year 2015, we are all used to the notion
that when the latest Hollywood blockbuster
comes out, it may well be accompanied by a
merchandise range. But Star Wars has never really
had what might be termed a ‘normal’ relationship
with the merchandise world, toys like the iconic
Kenner figures of yesteryear having stoked
expectations for every new toy release - such
as, in the case of the latest instalment, The Force
Awakens, the BB-8 by Sphero.
Naturally, we have to explain a bit more of the
background here. If you are on even the faintest
nodding terms with current popular culture,
we’re sure that the term ‘BB-8’ already evokes
for you the image of the latest Star Wars droid in
all of its onomatopoeic majesty, it resembling a
moving white ball with a small domed, R2-D2-
esque head.
It’s not every day that we get a new Star Wars
droid of any description, so to be able to
welcome one already so effortlessly iconic is
quite something, and fans will be no doubt
eager to see what BB-8 gets up to on the big
screen. They should certainly be impressed by
the realism of its depiction, not least given The
Force Awakens’ much-decreased reliance on
computer-generated imagery (CGI) in favor of
the more traditional, practical special effects of
the original Star Wars trilogy.

What that means is that the BB-8 you watch on
screen will be an actual physical prop, created
by Disney Research and operated live on set.
Much has already been said about BB-8’s design.
Special effects artist Neal Scanlan has said
that the droid’s differently shaped panels on
each side make it easier for viewers to track the
droid’s movement and direction of travel than
would be the case if the circumference had
featured more parallel patterns.
Scanlan has even gone as far as giving us an
insight into the droid’s personality, commenting
that “We always imagined BB-8 as being quite
manipulative. I think he knows he’s cute. He
knows he can win people over. And he uses that
like children do to get his own way. In this film,
he has a very important mission that he has to
accomplish and so he uses his personality, his
coyness, and all of those things.”
Why are we talking about all of these things?
Well, it is that combination of genuine
personality, subtly ingenious design and
compelling technology that we expect to give
BB-8 a huge amount of appeal to Star Wars
fans for many years to come, and which should
also - not coincidentally - make it ripe for
merchandising opportunities. In keeping with
the spirit of BB-8 as an actual, physical, working
thing, you can even buy one, thanks to a little
company known as Sphero.
If you know anything at all about the company
Sphero, it will immediately become obvious
to you why it was chosen for the assignment
of bringing BB-8 into people’s homes. The
firm has become synonymous in recent years
with its spherical robots that are controlled
by a smartphone app, and which very much
resemble naked or proto-BB-8s in their shape
and function. Today, the company offers the
original white polycarbonate Sphero toy and
the rugged Ollie, the transparent educationoriented
SPRK Edition having also recently
earned plaudits.
But the creation of a convincing BB-8 toy -
or technological device, remote controlled
spherical robot or whatever other term
you might be tempted to use - has surely
been Sphero’s biggest and most daunting
assignment yet. That said, you can’t deny the
thoroughness of the company’s preparation,
its executives having been the first people
outside the production team to be shown
on-set photos and images of the droid
by Disney CEO Bob Iger in July, when it
was participating in a startup accelerator
program run by the corporation.
The result of the collaboration has been
described by Wired as “the only truly cuttingedge
item” in a collection of The Force
Awakens merchandise including the likes of
toys, action figures, bags and luggage and
household items, in which the image of BB-8
featured prominently. That some fans have
even reportedly been getting tattoos
of BB-8 on various areas of their bodies
suggests that Sphero has a lot to live up to in
making its ‘BB-8 by Sphero’ toy befitting of the
legend that is already springing up around the
new droid.

So, what is the ‘BB-8 by Sphero’ really all about?
Well, in a nutshell, it’s a version of the traditional
Sphero that resembles BB-8, but which you can
otherwise do many of the usual Sphero-esque
things with, such as using a smartphone or
tablet app as a remote control to roll it across
the floor. Sphero has naturally made somewhat
grander claims for the BB-8 - hailing it as “the
app-enabled droid that is as authentic as it is
advanced”, boasting “something unlike any other
robot - an adaptive personality that changes as
you play.”
Sphero isn’t just promising another remote
controlled toy - it’s talked of a device that shows
various expressions and even perks up when it
is given voice commands. We’ve even been told
that the BB-8 can ‘go on patrol’ - in other words,
you can leave it to explore any environment
of its own accord. We’re also excited about the
bit in Sphero’s blurb referencing the ability to
“create and view holographic recordings” -
and of course, if all of the above sounds a bit
pretentious to you, you can also just whip your
iPhone out and control it just like any old remote
controlled toy.
Naturally, the BB-8 by Sphero can’t offer
everything that its on-screen counterpart can.
It’s certainly not as large as the BB-8 of cinema
fame, and despite that aforementioned ‘patrol’
feature, no one’s claiming that it will have the
same intelligence and independence. The
bottom line is that while it isn’t a bespoke
recreation of the BB-8 of the big screen for
fans with money to burn, the Sphero variant’s
$150 retail price should appeal to a good mix
of hardcore Star Wars collectors and those
simply seeking a more sophisticated-thannormal
We are not unfamiliar with the charms of
Sphero, having also previously tried out the
SPRK Edition, so we had a decent idea of what
to expect on the arrival of the box. As with the
SPRK Edition, on opening it up, we weren’t
greeted with reams of paper instructions, but
instead with some simple diagrams that helped
to make clear just how self-explanatory the
operation of this device really is.
The box’s overall contents consist of nothing
more than an induction charging base, a micro
USB cable, a Quick Start guide, legal guide
and - of course - the ‘BB-8 App-Enabled Droid’
itself, with its distinctive design and colours
and durable polycarbonate shell. At a height of
11.4cm, a width of 7.3cm and a weight of 200kgabout
the equivalent of a small orange - it’s a
nice, portable size and weight for living room
play, without the worry about inadvertently
knocking out or running over your cat or dog.
In case you’re wondering, a combination of
magnets and small wheels is used to keep the
droid’s head secure on its globular body, even
while it’s hurtling across the room. Once you’ve
got the BB-8 out of its box, one of the first things
that you will need to do is download the app
to your mobile device - it’s free, and there are
versions available for smartphones and tablets
on both iOS and Android.

The app’s first task will pair the BB-8 to
Bluetooth. Once that’s done, you will be required
to line up the blue light in the actual BB-8 with
your own direction, the toy - once you actually
start to play with it - moving in the direction
where the light is pointing. You will then finally
be able to actually play with it.
There are three interactive modes in the app to
take advantage of - Drive, Message and Patrol, in
addition to a Settings app. It is the Drive mode
that we found ourselves using most often, and
which we suspect you will use most often too,
presenting you with a virtual directional pad -
albeit, dependent on your device being held in
landscape mode - with which you can control
the BB-8’s movement.
We found the process of controlling the BB-8
to be highly intuitive and accurate - we never
found ourselves whacking it into walls that we
didn’t want it to whack into, for example - to
such an extent that we could imagine a child
easily controlling it as long as the blue light is
lined up. Even if you do hit a few obstacles from
time to time, the BB-8’s tough shell doesn’t
seem to suffer any scratches as a result, at
least if you keep to a reasonably slow speed.
Of course, it’s still possible to break plastic,
so we wouldn’t recommend doing anything
completely foolhardy.
Basically, if you have ever played with a Sphero
before, the Drive function should present
you with no difficulties. This part of the app
also includes options for reverse driving and
a temporary speed boost, or if you tap the
BB-8 portrait, you can access a host of further
instructions. You can order your BB-8 to spin
around in circles, nod yes or no or conduct a
square or figure-of-eight shaped ‘mini patrol’.
Whatever we instructed BB-8 to do, it responded
with aplomb, even moving across rugs and
carpets, although moving from a smooth floor
surface onto a rug was sometimes difficult when
the BB-8 wasn’t moving fast enough. We would
also advise that you vacuum your floor before
letting BB-8 loose, given its inevitable tendency
to gather dirt - particularly on the underside of
the dome head that is constantly in contact with
different areas of the rolling body.
You probably won’t spend as much time with
the other parts of the app, but that doesn’t
mean that they lack their own appeal. The
Messages section, for instance, allows you to
use your phone or tablet’s front-facing camera
to a record a video message that is then
holographically “played” by the BB-8. In practice,
that means that augmented reality is used to
play the message on the phone.
Recording a message might take some getting
used to, given the need to do so with the
device in landscape mode. However, there’s
no question that the resultant visual effect on
playback is impressive, with the blue hologram
being projected within your smartphone
screen’s 3D space to make it appear as if the BB-8
itself is producing it.
You can store numerous video messages locally
within the smartphone app, giving you plenty
of opportunity to marvel once again at the
wonders of augmented reality. Such a feature
isn’t a mere gimmick, included because Sphero
physically “can” offer it; it has a clear link to
one of the key purposes of the droids in the
actual Star Wars films of surreptitiously
delivering important messages from one
Jedi to another.
The Patrol app is the perfect feature for the
especially lazy BB-8 user - it really is the app that
you simply switch on when you want to sit back
and be entertained. As the name suggests, this
feature involves BB-8 going on ‘patrol’, moving
around its space and working its way around
obstacles of its own accord.
How does it do that without bumping into things,
we hear you ask? Well, it most definitely does
bump into things, at least at first, and will make
angry noises as it does so. This is why we wouldn’t
advise you to set the ‘Patrol’ mode in a room with
too many awkward nooks and crannies.

Nonetheless, as your BB-8 navigates on its
own, it gradually ‘learns’ your chosen space - or
rather, it is the app that builds a map of where
the toy has been, complete with an event log
comprising self diagnostics, proximity data
and collision information. If, for instance, the
BB-8 slams into a table leg, it’ll note this as an
obstacle on its ‘map’, so that it doesn’t make the
same mistake again.
Another wonder of the BB-8 is the ability
that you have to literally speak to it via voice
activation technology. You can activate voice
mode simply by saying “okay, BB-8”, before
barking all manner of voice commands at it.
Suggested phrases include exploratory ones
like “look around” and “go explore”, as well as
questions such as “how do you feel?” and “what
do you think?”, not to mention alerts like “it’s a
trap!” and “run away!” You can even tell it to “go
to sleep” or “wake up”.
We didn’t normally have problems getting this
voice activation feature to work, which was a
pleasant surprise, given how frustrating such
functionality can be in certain other contexts.
All of the signs so far have indicated that the
Sphero by BB-8 has been positively flying off
the shelves, causing no less fuss than the latest
accompanying installment of the Star Wars
film saga. It even been described as one of the
hottest-selling toys of the Christmas season, for
all of Sphero’s reluctance to even consider
it a toy.
To be fair, the company probably shouldn’t
take offence at the association - after all, we
are now firmly into the era of the increasing
‘technologization’ of even the most seemingly
basic children’s toys, and given the already
strong involvement of Sphero in the education
field, it should be no surprise if it is children
who largely find the BB-8 in their stockings on
December 25.
Certainly, if one is to categorize the Sphero
BB-8 as a toy, there’s no question that it has a
formidable heritage to live up to as far as the
Star Wars franchise is concerned. And, let’s face
it - if The Force Awakens is anywhere near as
well-received as the Sphero BB-8 has already
been, it will have lived up to a lot of hype in and
of itself.

by Benjamin Kerry & Gavin Lenaghan


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