Hands On With Sphero BB-8

BB8_6
Sphero’s latest droid is from a galaxy far, far away — and he’s a lot of fun. I sat down with Orbotix’s COO, Jim Booth for a demonstration of Sphero BB-8.
Orbotix has had a long history in producing fun remote control robots, from its Sphero line of toys through to Ollie and Darkside Ollie.
The latest robot to roll off the Sphero production lines is a little different, because he’s a wholly licensed product; Sphero BB-8, based on the droid in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Yeah, THAT BB-8
Sphero’s take on the latest Star Wars droid to capture the fan’s imagination is, as you might expect from Sphero, a sphere. Only it’s a sphere with its own spinning head, attached and rotated magnetically. I sat down and talked with Orbotix’s COO, Jim Booth during a recent visit to Sydney to run BB-8 through his paces down under.

Sphero BB-8: From Prototype to production

“We got involved with Disney through the Disney Tech Stars program” says Booth. “It’s an accelerator program run by Disney. They bring ten companies in to pitch. We were part of that program. Bob Iger came in, talked to the companies, and during that time he saw our original Sphero product, and he took his phone out and said “hey — this is the new character for the new Star Wars movie. I’d like to know if you guys could actually build this.”
“It just so happened we had all of our tools there, and we could prototype him. Four hours later, we sent him a video of a prototype of BB-8 functioning. He was just amazed. From that point onwards, we had discussions around licensing and being able to make the character come alive.”

Sphero BB-8: Play Or Play Not

BB-8 charges by induction; according to Booth “around three hours of inductive charging gives you one hour of fun”, which isn’t half bad for a remote controlled toy. “It’s actually waterproof — the bottom half is, although the head will have issues if you get water stuck in it.”
With a new Droid comes a new app, with appropriate Star Wars sounds and visuals. BB-8 himself doesn’t make any sounds, but the app is quite chirpy with a mix of controls that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s used a Sphero product before along with some new twists.

BB-8 comes in a presentation box, which is sure to cause anguish amongst the Star Wars faithful. Do you leave him mint in box, or take him out to play?
BB-8 comes in a presentation box, which is sure to cause anguish amongst the Star Wars faithful. Do you leave him mint in box, or take him out to play?

BB-8 immediately springs to life when he’s first paired whether or not you drive him yourself. Booth stated that “We thought that was really important. You hear us talk about idle animations, and giving the character personality. That’s what they do.”
Drive mode is what it says on the tin, joined by a Patrol mode that puts BB-8 into a room sensing mode where he’ll wander around, bouncing off walls (mostly) while giving you constant feedback on the state of his internal gyroscopes. It’s geeky as heck, and a lot of fun if you’re a Star Wars obsessive — or just a fan of small cute robots.
Magnets. How do they work? BB-8 knows how they work.
Magnets. How do they work?
BB-8 knows how they work.

“There’s been a lot speculation online about how the head is connected” says Booth “We went with a magnetic connection, along with firmware that works to correct itself into place. There is nothing powering the head in this version. Even as you pick him up, the idle animation driven by the magnets will start playing out.”

Help Me BB-8. You’re My Only Hope

Then there’s the holographic messaging function, a la a certain Princess’ classic message from A New Hope. This isn’t quite a fully fledged hologram communication system, but instead a mix of pattern recognition and AR. You record a video message, and then activate the holographic messaging part of the app, which detects BB-8 via the camera and then puts an AR overlay of your message in that classic blue and flickery Star Wars style on the screen.

Unfortunately all this messaging action has to be run from the phone that Sphero’s paired with, so you can’t send him round the house to request help with the dishes. According to Booth, “All the messages you have on the phone will remain resident on the phone, and not shareable.” Orbotix is also under the licensing rules of Disney, so they’re mindful of making certain that unsavoury Star Wars content isn’t shared out.

Don't even think what you're thinking. BB-8 is an innocent droid.
Don’t even think what you’re thinking. BB-8 is an innocent droid.

BB-8 will also support voice control, including a few iconic phrases from Star Wars canon. Which means, yes, you can tell BB-8 that it’s a trap, although Booth admitted they hadn’t tested whether or not BB-8 would understand the line if you played the actual Admiral Ackbar speech quote at him. I’m certain somebody will rectify that from within the gigantic Star Wars community rather soon.
Booth hinted that there’s additional modes that may be unlocked once the final film is released “and we all know more about the character”, but he wouldn’t be drawn as to what those modes might be.

BB-8: There Is Another

It’s no secret that Sphero itself has already been hacked to produce a BB-8-like droid, most notably via a tutorial that’s still up at MAKE.
That didn’t fuss the Orbotix team. Booth stated “We paid close attention to the hacks. All of them got it wrong in one or more details. We were done with our design by the time they started happening. One of the really famous ones, on the cover of MAKE, was interesting. We were fans of that, because we’re makers and hackers. It’s our DNA and background. None of them were quite right — but they’re getting pretty close.”

Jim Booth's hand, for a little scale demonstration. He may or may not be informing BB-8 that he is its father.
Jim Booth’s hand, for a little scale demonstration. He may or may not be informing BB-8 that he is its father.

BB-8 Sphero is available in Australia as of the 4th of September (there might be a pun in there, but I couldn’t possibly make it) for $249.95, a $50 premium on the $199 Sphero itself.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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