Emily S. Whitten: Sphero’s BB-8 and Star Wars – The Force Awakens
Which came first, the movie or the toy? Okay, I kid, but seriously – was there ever a more perfectly marketable movie character than that fat little orange-and-white droid, BB-8? From his appearance in the first trailer, everyone seemed to fall in love with the little guy (me included). And then we learned that not only could we have one for our very own (and love him and hug him and pet him and call him George), but he wasn’t going to be just a collectible figure – he was going to be a rolling, beeping, interactive little friend just like in the movie. What could be better?
Well, a life-sized, autonomous BB-8; but until science attains the achievement of creating gen-u-ine droid companions for all of us, this is the next best thing. First of all, this little robotic guy was just designed to tug at our human heartstrings. With his rounded shape and head that are an almost cartoon-like cross between human and droid (less machine-shaped than R2-D2, but also less human-like than C-3PO), expressive sounds, quick movements, and loyal dog-like personality, he’s simply a sweetheart of a droid – exactly the loyal little pet-companion we’d all like. Second, Sphero’s product brings the movie character to life in a fun, interactive way, while still leaving room through its interface for updating and adding features via the BB-8 app (in fact, between my first and second test runs, they added four more personality interactions). Pretty cool!
I first encountered Sphero’s BB-8 in person at Dragon Con, where one of Peter Mayhew’s reps was playing around with Mayhew’s BB-8 during a room party; and as soon as I saw him, I understood what all the fuss was about (and decided I must have one). Like many people, I got to test-drive my BB-8 before Star Wars: The Force Awakens even came out (in the ultimate example of marketing leading a movie, we got to learn his character via the toy before even really meeting him on the big screen). But unlike some, I just got my little BB-8 a few days ago (and saw the movie last night). So I got to have fun with mini BB-8 just days before seeing his origin.
After playing around with my new toy, here’s what I’ve learned:
- BB-8 is not too hard to use, once you’ve figured out the wordless instructions he comes with. Getting to that point can be a little difficult – despite the simple pictograms that seem like they should be easy to figure out, I also had to troll around a bit on Sphero’s online FAQ before I got the hang of a few things. However, they do have both the FAQ and a video to help get people started; and once the features are figured out, they’re super easy to remember from use to use. It would have been nice to have it all right there; but then, in this day and age, it’s not surprising they’ve decided to put most of the more in-depth stuff online. In the end, it’s not such a bad system – since the FAQ answers most of the questions I wanted to know, once I found the FAQ it was more like a treasure hunt than an exercise in frustration.
- The design and functionality of the droid seem really solid. The charging station is easy to use and also looks really cool (I’m considering giving it a place of honor on my desk at work, although I kind of fear some covetous person will try to reenact the movie by attempting to steal him away because he’s just so cute). The fully charged BB-8 can be played with for an hour before needing a recharge. The droid itself, which has already knocked into a bunch of my walls while “learning its environment,” seems pretty durable (and is supposed to be water resistant, although I’m wary of testing that). The Bluetooth communication range (once you’ve got it connected) is pretty far (for instance, I left him on “Patrol” and he went all the way around the corner and into my bedroom, probably at least 20 feet away through a concrete wall). He also has a speed adjustment, which makes him controllable on both smooth floors and carpets without causing him to, for instance, spin out of control by going too fast on a smooth floor.
- There are a lot of cool features to this droid. You can “drive” him yourself via a directional joystick on the app that is really easy to use (and even drive in “reverse” so it looks like he’s running away backwards). You can give him (to date) twelve commands that will cause him to e.g. shake his head yes or no, go into panic mode, go in a straight line back and forth, or make a figure eight or a square. You can leave him on “Patrol” and he will just mosey around on his own (I left mine on Patrol for at least 20 minutes and he was still going when I stopped him). You can also give him voice commands such as, “Run away!” and your little droid will speed away. One caveat I will note regarding the voice commands: they are fairly reliable, but occasionally the app (and I’ve tested it on both the iPhone and Droid Maxx) doesn’t pick up your command, and notes it as an “unknown command.” Further, the “Come in, BB-8” command has not yet worked for me on either phone. However, generally speaking, they’re fun. And finally, you can record and view messages as holograms that look like they are emanating from the BB-8 when viewed through your phone camera screen (and it looks coooool).
- You can totally troll your tiny hamster with a BB-8, or use BB-8’s interactive features to make silly videos. It’s pretty hilarious to play around with him in general, and despite being a little machine plus a clever bit of programming, he really takes on a personality through the controls, autonomous movements and noises he (or rather, the app) makes – the first time I tried the “It’s a trap!” command, for instance, my little droid immediately went and hid under the bed. Bless.
- Although of course there are a limited number of things he can do thus far, the BB-8 is fascinating to play with because of the control you have, and still fun even after you’ve learned his basic tricks (and I can imagine he will be a hit at my New Year’s party or other places where people who haven’t seen one yet can play with him). Plus, Sphero said they’d be adding more functionalities, and so far, it looks like that’s holding true!
Of course, I’m always an advocate for more and better features, and since they plan to add to the droid’s functionality, here are some things I’d like to see:
- Additional voice commands, and possibly customizable voice commands;
- Additional movement buttons like the four new ones they just added;
- The ability to save holographic messages to your phone and send them to others;
- New holographic messages from The Force Awakens;
- The ability to run the BB-8 while also using your camera for, e.g., Vine or other social media;
- A “return to base” command that brings BB-8 back to his owner’s cell phone without the need to manually drive him.
While learning about my new droid, I also got to talk with the folks at Sphero about him; and while Sphero is being pretty tight-lipped about future features (darn it! I’m curious!), they did answer a few of my BB-8 questions. Here’s what they said:
Can you give us a brief history of the Sphero BB-8? How did it come to be as a product concept, and what went into its creation? How did Sphero’s background as a company and its past creations play into making this little guy a reality?
Co-founders of Sphero, Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein along with Paul Berbarian (CEO, Sphero) went through the Disney Techstars accelerator program in the summer/fall of 2014. During this program, Bob Iger (CEO, The Walt Disney Company) became a mentor of the trio where he learned more about the original Sphero rolling ball that the company had already created and sold.
As Bob learned more about Sphero’s expertise, he showed the team a secret photo on his phone from the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He had asked Paul, Ian and Adam if they could make a consumer version of the droid character, BB-8. Adam and Ian saw the opportunity at hand and had a proto-type to Iger within 24 hours. The rest was history.
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega attended a “midnight madness” event in London on “Force Friday,” September 4, 2015 when all Star Wars consumer products became available. At this event, Daisy Ridley signed one of the BB-8 by Sphero products for the Sphero team.
Peter Mayhew (who plays Chewbacca) sent his own BB-8 by Sphero product to the Sphero corporate office to have the team who helped create the product, sign it.
There are a few tech specs, features and controls I wasn’t completely clear on even after reading the product info and FAQ. Here are a few areas where I’d like more info:
- The product information indicates that we will be able to send the “holographic messages” but I was unable to discover how to do so. Is this feature active / on the way? How does it work?
At this time, holographic messages cannot be sent to one another. They are recorded within the app and can be viewed through the app in which they are recorded until deleted.
- I know the BB-8 is supposed to learn and adapt to its environment and user, and develop a “personality.” How does it do that, and what indicators will a user see when it starts to do that?
His adaptive personality comes to life through animations and through other actions (for example, he turns red and appears flustered when he runs into another object)
- Does the BB-8 really “map” its environment (e.g. obstacles, etc.), and does it remember it beyond the current session? When does it map – only in Patrol mode, or other times?
While BB-8 by Sphero does not utilize true mapping technology, he remembers where he goes (it’s outlined in the app when in patrol mode)
- The head and antenna are super-cute, but I can see the potential for antenna damage or losing the head (mine already got stuck under a couch while on Patrol, but I rescued it). Will there be spare heads available to purchase?
Yes. Separate heads for BB-8 by Sphero will be sold separately in 2016 at our partner retailers.
- Will it damage the BB-8/battery at all if it’s left docked and charging whenever it’s not in use? How long is the battery expected to last, and will there be a way to replace batteries?
Sphero offers a 1 year warranty against manufacturer defect, but the battery is expected to last long after one year.
- I saw in the user information that the body of the BB-8 is waterproof. This is my first Sphero product – do they perform in water (e.g. float or run underwater, respond to controls) and would it damage the product to try that out? (And would it work with the head, which is only water resistant, on top, or not?).
BB-8 has a waterproof body and water resistant head.
(Hmm, guess I’ll have to risk testing that one for myself?)
In related things, Sphero’s FAQ says, “The product experience will continue to be updated throughout its lifespan.” That’s great, because with a high-ticket item like this, the fact that there will be additional features added over time makes it more worth the price and people more likely to buy. What does that entail, or can you give us any sneak peeks into upcoming additions?
We are not able to share any sneak peeks at this time. But we promise to keep the content fresh.
(*tears* But I want to know nowwwwww!)
Oh well – even if I don’t know what the future holds for my tiny BB-8, I guess I can content myself with playing with his current functions and watching wee mini Squish talk to BB-8, give him hamster kisses, share snack time, and try to assist BB-8 in breaking out of Hamster Jail, a.k.a. her lovely playpen. Good times
And as for Star Wars: The Force Awakens itself, I’m still digesting the movie from a late viewing last night. But in brief: I thoroughly enjoyed it (and not just for BB-8), and it managed to throw a few surprises my way, as well. At the same time, it’s fascinating to see how much it echoes the first trilogy and manages to be exactly what Star Wars fans would expect while still feeling fresh. Through design (oh, those scrolling intros and old-school transitions!), camera work, and soundtrack, the aesthetics of the old and new movies match despite the long time gap between their creations. And throughout the movie, there are near matches to plot, setting, and character beats that were present in the first trilogy.
And yet, while watching the movie, it (mostly) didn’t feel too self-referential or re-hashed. And although the movie followed many tropes both generally and in line with what the first trilogy had done, it did also manage to buck a few expectations, which is always welcome. All-in-all, an enjoyable movie experience that fits well within the franchise, but is different enough to keep you thinking about it for a bit.
Which I will do, as I continue to roll around with my BB-8, the coolest movie tie-in merchandise I’ve owned to date. I recommend you get one too. And until next time, Servo Lectio!