Sphero BB-8 Review

Is the force strong with Sphero’s BB-8 droid, or is he just for Star Wars obsessives with more money than sense?
With the impending release of the next Star Wars movies only a couple of months away, the hype is really starting to build. That includes lots of toys, and the latest to hit store shelves and cause something of an initial buying frenzy was Sphero’s BB-8, a robotic ball droid designed around the droid of the same name from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Might as well gawp at the trailer again, fans.

Sphero sent me a BB-8 to review, and I’ve spent some time playing around with him to get to grips with what is, at its core, a $249 toy.
If you’re familiar with Sphero’s existing range, then in many ways, it’s just a Sphero with a magnetically attached head and a Star Wars paint job. The main body itself is about the size of a baseball. When not in use, it sits in a Star Wars themed charging base.
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?

$249 is a lot to spend on a toy, even for a Star Wars fan. It’s fair to suggest that the real diehard fans will have already made up their mind one way or another. When chatting about BB-8 to Sphero’s COO, Jim Booth, I commented that they’d almost certainly make their money back quickly just from the die-hard fans, and I stand by that thought.
Related: BB-8 Interview with Sphero’s Jim Booth
But what if you’re more of a fair weather fan rather than a full-on fanatic for all things Star Wars related?
BB-8 sits in the same kind of space as Sphero’s other products that I’ve reviewed, such as Ollie and Darkside Ollie,
He’s very reminscent, in fact, because like Ollie and the other Sphero toys, he’s controlled via a smartphone or tablet app (iOS/Android) that pairs with BB-8 for control purposes.
Unlike the Ollie vehicles, you don’t have to tap the device to BB-8 for pairing, instead using the camera on your device for quick pattern recognition and pairing. In my tests, this was a lot more reliable than Ollie, which can sometimes be temperamental.
As you might expect, the BB-8 app is awash with Star Wars iconography and sounds. That’s important at an immersion level, because BB-8 itself doesn’t have any inbuilt speakers or camera, which some remote drone style toys do. What you do get instead is an inbuilt driving interface, as well as options for patrolling, holographic messaging and voice control.
Driving BB-8 is an interesting experience with a definite learning curve. He’s quite quick, and he’s easy to crash, so it’s a good thing he’s fairly robust. In a couple of weeks of driving, I’ve crashed him quite a bit, and had the slight terror of watching his head fly off a few times. His antennae are robust, but I could well see them snapping off if the angle is just right, or in this case, quite wrong.
The head is the part of BB-8 that really gives it character, because he shuffles around magnetically a lot. Sphero’s statement is that we’ll learn more about BB-8 when the movie finally comes out, but for now, he’s part curious droid, part drunken droid. There is something endearing in him bumbling around either way.
You lookin' at me?
You lookin’ at me?

The patrol mode gives BB-8 free reign to wander around and stumble into things, which again is a mixture of charm and peril. Again, while I can appreciate from an engineering standpoint that getting his head to work would have been challenging, it’s a bit of a pity it isn’t more solidly secured. More than once during patrol mode, I’ve found him sans skull.
Voice control gives you a limited number of commands to give BB-8, including Star Wars stalwarts such as “it’s a trap”.

Does this mean Ackbar’s in The Force Awakens? Only Disney knows.

Voice control doesn’t work very well. Maybe that’s the Australian accent, but I spent more time shouting at my phone to get BB-8 to respond than it would have taken to just drive him manually, every single time. Even imitating an American accent (badly) didn’t seem to help.
Holographic messaging is likewise one part impressive, one part limited. It allows you to record video messages using your phone’s front facing camera, which are stored locally on your device and can then be played through the App’s AR interface when BB-8 is identified. The holographic part is fun, but it’s not quite a messaging service, as you have to display the message on the phone it’s recorded on. You can’t record something, drive BB-8 to another room and get someone else to pair and have your message played back, which limits the utility somewhat. Apparently it’s to ensure that Disney’s family-friendly image is upheld, and given what some people will do on the Internet, I can somewhat see the point — but it’s still a drawback.
If that was all that BB-8 could do, it’d sit solidly in the toy space, but there is a little more to it, albeit not officially from Sphero. The Tickle App (iOS only) provides a drag-and-drop UI for programming BB-8 to perform a series of actions, in a style that’s reminiscent of Scratch or, if you’re a little older-school inclined, Logo.
Do, or do not. There is no subroutine.
Do, or do not. There is no subroutine.

Tickle, it should be noted, does work with other robotic toys including the cheaper Sphero models, but there’s something cool about having an actual Star Wars Droid at your direct programmatic control.
Does all of that add up to a toy that’s worth dropping $249 on for the less Star Wars crazed?
Yeah, I know that’s a bit of a copout, but like anything that can be described as a toy, it’s very much a matter of working out how much actual fun you’ll have with it. If you’re only going to use Sphero’s own app for BB-8, then I suspect the fun might run out (or the head might break) before you hit $249 worth of value. If you’re keen on programming, or critically teaching others how to program, then there’s some more definite value there.

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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