We are all used to the notion that when the hottest 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 last year having stoked expectations for every new toy release – such as, in the case of the latest instalment, The Force Awakens, the BB-8 App-Enabled Droid by Sphero.
If you are on the current trendy 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.
Why Sphero BB-8 is worth for looking
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.
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 education oriented SPRK Edition having also recently earned plaudits.
The creation of a genuine BB-8 toy has surely been Sphero’s biggest and most daunting assignment yet. The result of the collaboration has been described by Wired as “the only truly cutting-edge 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.
More than a “Toy”
So, what is the ‘Sphero BB-8 App-Enabled Droid’ 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 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.
Generally, the BB-8 by Sphero can’t offer everything that it’s 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 than normal toy.
If you are not unfamiliar with the charms of Sphero, having also previously tried out the SPRK Edition, so you would have a decent idea of what to expect on the arrival of the box. 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 colors and durable polycarbonate shell. At a height of 11.4cm, a width of 7.3cm and a weight of 200kg about 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.
Intuitive Drive Function
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 moving in the direction where the light is pointing. You will then finally be able to actually play with it.
Sphero BB-8 App-Enabled Droid comes with three interactive modes in the app to take advantage of Drive, Message and Patrol. The Drive mode is using most often, presenting you with a virtual directional pad, 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 during the test, in such 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.
Exiting Holographic Messages
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.
Go On Patrol
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. When go on patrol, 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”.
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 this Christmas.
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.