For the past 38 years there hasn't been a robot more loved by fans than Star Wars' R2-D2. But that could all soon change when The Force Awakens hits theatres, especially now that anyone can own a tiny working version of the movie's BB-8 droid that can roll and balance all by itself.
Star Wars fans got their first glimpse of BB-8 in the original The Force Awakens teaser. And having only known droids in the Star Wars universe that could either walk, drive, or fly, they were immediately captivated by BB-8's unique spherical design, and that neat floating head that magically never falls off.
It wasn't until Star Wars Celebration, back in April, when a sassy real-life version of BB-8 came rolling out on stage, that everyone realised that R2-D2 was about to face some stiff competition. For The Force Awakens, BB-8 was brought to life using on-set puppeteers and visual effects. But for real-life appearances, the rolling droid was built with some help from a company that has been making remote-controlled rolling balls for years.
Once word got out that Sphero was partly behind that self-balancing real-life version of BB-8, the toy world was abuzz with rumours about Sphero possibly turning its existing robotic toy ball into a miniature version of BB-8 with a few minor modifications. And good news for Star Wars fans — those rumours turned out to be true.
What Is It?
It's a tiny replica of Star Wars: The Force Awakens BB-8 droid that can roll and balance all by itself, exactly like the robotic sidekick we've seen in all the teasers and trailers so far.
It goes without saying that most Star Wars toys require a healthy dose of imagination to bridge the gap between what kids are holding in their hands and what they see in the movies. Lightsabers with blades made of plastic tubes? What a rip-off. But aside from its diminutive size, Sphero's miniature version BB-8 appears to perfectly replicate almost everything we've seen the new droid do, at least so far.
When paired with an app running on your smartphone or tablet, BB-8 can autonomously explore your home, perform a series of pre-programmed movements, and even respond to voice commands. But at any time you can also grab a set of on-screen controls and send BB-8 rolling and exploring wherever you want.
With a price tag of $249 Sphero's BB-8 is one of the most expensive Star Wars toys to hit store shelves this weekend, but there's little doubt this tiny droid is going to be a huge hit leading up to the film's release this December.
Except for the addition of a tiny floating head that always remains atop his body, Sphero's BB-8 is almost exactly the same product as the company's robotic ball toy. At least in terms of appearance.
BB-8's body is a smooth plastic ball, about three inches in diameter, that's wrapped in detailed graphics that so far appear to be very durable. While playing with him for a few days we'll admit that BB-8 has had a few unfortunate run-ins with furniture and walls, but there's not a scratch on him. We don't know how well he'd hold up to blaster fire, but he should easily survive whatever perils are hiding in your home or office.
On the inside, the internal self-righting mechanism that allows the Sphero ball to propel itself works similar to how someone inside one of those giant inflatable spheres can climb the walls to get it rolling. For BB-8, this has been upgraded with a vertical support to holds its head in place using a magnet.
The magnet is more than strong enough to hold onto the head should BB-8 accidentally run into something, but it will occasionally pop-off if the tiny droid tries to roll under something where there's not enough clearance.
It's incredibly easy to re-attach it to his spherical body, though, and those tiny antennas you see sticking up on top are made from flexible plastic so there's little risk of them snapping off in a collision. It's about as kid-friendly as a $249 toy can be, as long as your kid doesn't try to eat BB-8's head.
Instead of a microUSB port on BB-8's body which would mar its smooth finish and its ability to roll freely, the toy's internal battery is topped up using an induction charger. You simply set BB-8 on an included base (which doubles as a lovely display stand so it doesn't roll off your desk) and the toy will automatically start charging. It couldn't be easier. And three hours of charging gets you about an hour of playtime.
It's also important to note that Sphero's BB-8 is an app-connected toy. If you don't have a tablet or smartphone running Android or iOS that can download the free accompanying app, the most you can do with BB-8 is charge the little droid and trigger a few cute head movements while it's on its base. Not exactly exciting, and certainly not worth $249 if you're without a mobile device.
As far as apps for toys go, though, Sphero's BB-8 app is a wonderful thing. It's as Star Wars-branded as a Star Wars app can get (which is a good thing) and is saturated with graphics, animations, and sound effects all taken from the Star Wars universe.
If you're planning to buy Sphero's BB-8 you're probably already a big Star Wars fan and will undoubtedly love all the little Star Wars touches. But the app is also incredibly well laid out, responsive, and surprisingly easy-to-use without having to sit through a long tutorial — although they are included the first time you use it. No complaints there.
Most of the software that accompanies an app-connected toy seems like an after-thought at best — they feel as if they were developed at the last minute with minimal testing because they can be easily fixed and updated well after the toy's been released (although they rarely are). But it's clear that Sphero has put just as much development and care into the BB-8 app as the company did with the toy itself. And that just adds to the overall enjoyment.
When BB-8 is fully charged (indicated by a series of charge status lights on the inductive base) all you have to do is make sure Bluetooth is activated on your mobile device, launch the app, and that the tiny droid is nearby. The connection between BB-8 and your mobile device happens automatically after just a few seconds, with no need to fiddle with pairing settings.
Once BB-8 is connected to your mobile device you have your choice of three different modes of play: Patrol, Drive, or Message.
Patrol is BB-8's autonomous mode, and is akin to letting an excited but blind puppy run wild in your home. BB-8 doesn't have any on-board sensors, so he'll continuously crash into walls, feet, and furniture while he explores a space. But by keeping tabs on the toy's speed and heading, the accompanying app allows BB-8 to learn the ins and outs of a space so he can eventually build a rudimentary map of a room allowing him to later avoid obstacles he's already run into.
When BB-8 is out exploring on his own, the app shows his current speed, how far he's travelled, and the path he's taken while he criss-crosses the floor. See that Stormtrooper icon? That's where BB-8 ran into my foot, and identified it as an enemy and something to avoid in the future. The lack of collision sensors means that will be a common occurrence, but the tiny droid is at least smart enough to not get stuck. If he runs into an immovable object he'll simply back off and head in another direction.
Collisions aren't a problem, but falls might be. The lack of sensors, or any kind of insight into what dangers lie ahead, means BB-8 can easily accidentally roll down a flight of stairs, or off a table. And while the toy is made from durable plastic, it's far from invincible. A fall onto concrete could easily dent, damage, or crack the plastic sphere, which would put an end to BB-8's ability to roll. So an ounce of prevention when you're using BB-8 in Patrol is worth about $US150 of cure.
As fun as it is to watch Sphero's BB-8 roll around your home by himself and react with adorable head movements and sound effects when he hits something, the real fun of the toy is driving the droid yourself.
In Drive mode there are two on-screen virtual joysticks that let you take control of BB-8, but driving a perfectly round sphere can be a little tricky at times because you're not always sure which direction is forward. But like the original Sphero toy, there's an easy way to keep track of where BB-8 is headed.
The joystick on the left is used to drive BB-8 forward and back, or steer him left and right. But the joystick on the right is instead used to rotate his internal drive mechanism to ensure it's always pointing in the direction you want before you send him rolling.
To know exactly which direction BB-8 is headed, a blue LED inside his spherical body glows as you adjust the orientation of his internal drive mechanism. As long as that blue dot is pointing in your direction, the left joystick will function as you expect it to, sending BB-8 rolling away from you as you slide your finger forward. Just think of the blue light as the tail light on a car.
Once you've mastered the orientation tricks, learning to drive BB-8 and steer him around obstacles will still take some practise, but it's mostly because few of us have ever tried to drive a sphere before. The touchscreen controls in the app are perfectly responsive, but you'll need some time to get used to them because at top speed BB-8 can move surprisingly fast.
During your first few runs you will hit things, that's a given. But you'll quickly develop the reflexes and muscle memory needed to send the little droid scurrying around a room without hitting anything. And that's when the toy becomes really satisfying and a heck of a lot of fun; when you're able to make it roll around with lifelike movements as if it's thinking for itself like a real droid would.
To further bring BB-8 to life and express his personality, in Drive mode you can trigger a series of pre-programmed animated responses and movements at the push of a button. The yes and no are particularly entertaining, and are definitely the perfect way to respond to co-workers whenever they ask you a question.
But what's a droid without holographic message capabilities? How else could Princess Leia have convinced Obi-Wan Kenobi to help Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion?
Given that that technology doesn't really exist yet, Sphero has come up with a clever way to recreate it through the app using augmented reality. Once you've recorded a message using your smartphone or tablet's front-facing camera (which will inevitably be "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope" the first time you use it) you simply point the device at the droid and your message will appear to be projected from its tiny head — but only when looking through your device's screen.
It's doubtful you'll use the Message mode more than a few times while you show off your new toy to friends. But kids will certainly get a kick out of the feature, and it's another example of how Sphero has done a wonderful job making the accompanying BB-8 app a big part of the experience, and not just an accessory.
When BB-8 rolled out on stage at Star Wars Celebration earlier this year, every single Star Wars fan watching immediately thought the same thing: "I want one!" It didn't take long for some impatient but talented fans to actually start building their own fully-functional BB-8s, but now the rest of us can finally own one too.
It's hard to say for sure how accurate Sphero's BB-8 is to the one starring in The Force Awakens given none of us have actually seen the movie yet. But from the few glimpses we've had of BB-8 in action, it looks like Sphero has nailed the design and proportions with its miniature version of the droid. A lot of care and attention to detail has gone into its design, its manufacturing, and especially the app.
If you're a Star Wars fan, you'll be hard-pressed not to crack a smile the first time you send BB-8 rolling across your floor. It moves and responds to obstacles with incredibly life-like reactions, motions, and sound effects. Since the first Star Wars movie there has been an endless stream of R2-D2 toys that attempt to recreate the movements of that droid, but none have come as close to replicating R2-D2's personality as Sphero has at replicating BB-8's.
It's also just incredibly fun to play with. The reactions you'll get from people will help you understand why other Star Wars fans spend thousands of dollars building their own remote control replicas of Artoo and other droids. And you'll be glad you only had to spend $US150.
What's Not So Good?
Remember back to a time when we all used a computer mouse? And those ancient models that used a big rubber ball on the underside turning a series of wheels to track movement, not a fancy camera? Remember how often you had to keep cleaning those wheels so the mouse cursor wouldn't jump around on-screen? You'll be able to relive those days every time you have to stop and clean out the underside of BB-8's head.
BB-8's spherical body is completely sealed so nothing — be it dust, dirt, or water — can ever get in. But his magnetic head uses a pair of rolling wheels that are really, really good at collecting lint and dirt. And everything that gets stuck to BB-8's body will end up in there.
The lack of sensors anywhere on the toy also means you'll have to be really careful where you choose to play with BB-8, even when you're at the controls. The toy moves very quickly on smooth, hard surfaces, and if you're not careful you can easily drive it off something like a desk. If it lands on carpeting it will probably be OK, but if it lands on a hard floor you'll be seriously risking your little droid's life.
BB-8 also tends to wobble a lot, especially when rolling around on hard, smooth surfaces. We're assuming the original Sphero has the same problem, but because it's a perfect sphere you probably don't notice the wobble when it comes to a sudden stop, or when it's suddenly changing directions. However with the added weight of BB-8's head on top, the back and forth motion of the toy while it's shaking off inertia is very noticeable. It doesn't really affect how the toy moves, but it does tend to make BB-8 look like he's been out partying with the other droids all night long.
The BB-8 app also touts voice controls as a fun feature. You can grab BB-8's attention by simply saying "OK, BB-8" followed by another spoken command from a handful of different instructions. But it's not like Sphero has come up with a revolutionary breakthrough in speech recognition just for this app — it's still far from perfect. Your success with voice commands will vary wildly depending on where you're trying to talk to the droid, and we found it really annoying because of how many times you accidentally say BB-8 while playing with the toy. So it was turned off almost immediately.
Should You Buy It?
Remember that time all those parents were fighting over Tickle Me Elmo toys before the holidays? You can probably expect to see the same thing happen between Star Wars fans desperate to buy a store's last BB-8 — except they will probably be using plastic lightsabers.
Of all the Star Wars toys that will be flying off store shelves on Force Friday, Sphero's BB-8 is without a doubt the one to get. Even if you're not interested in a tiny droid sidekick, buy one if you find one because you'll easily be able to make a tidy profit selling it to another Star Wars collector later on.
The vast majority of Star Wars merchandise you'll find in stores tomorrow will probably feel like nothing more than companies trying to cash in on a lucrative franchise — but that's not the case with Sphero's BB-8. The company had a unique opportunity to bring The Force Awakens character to life using the robotic ball technology it originally developed years ago, and it's done exactly that. Everything from the packaging, to the detailed design of the toy, to the fantastic accompanying app, makes you feel like Sphero was more concerned with creating a wonderful Star Wars collectible than just another Star Wars toy.
We love you, R2-D2, we really do. But BB-8 has just stolen our hearts.