I first saw Star Wars episode IV when it first came out in theatres in the mid to late 70s. Although I was only a boy back then, it was one of the most remarkable movie experiences ever - that first scene with the Imperial cruiser pursuing the diplomatic ship, the music, everything in that room changed movies coming after.
That one and all subsequent movies exploited merchandise like no other franchise. And technology advanced so much since the last movie came up ten years ago that it is no surprise that this time the top merchandise tie-in is a remote-controlled, mobile activated, smart robot.
To me it started back in the middle of the year when a PR company approached me with a mysterious offer: would I like to see (under embargo obviously) a new robot from Sphero to be launched later in the year, one that tied with a movie coming in December?
Knowing Sphero (previously Orbotix) and its previous products (the Sphero and Ollie robotic toys) I instantly jumped to conclusions - which the PR person wouldn't confirm or deny. So it was with some excitement that I joined him in a hotel room here in Wellington to see this new product. And it was exactly what I suspected: the BB-8 was alive.
So he told me the story behind this new toy. Sphero have been doing robotic, remote-controlled moving toys for four years now and one day while presenting to an audience of investors they had the luck to talk to a Disney producer. When said producer saw the Sphero he showed the team some of the BB-8 drawings.
The Sphero team went back and created a model in record time, demonstrated to the studio and the rest is what is probably the most interactive Star Wards merchandise ever.
The BB-8 by Sphero has a similar size to the original Sphero, with the now well known markings of the BB-8 droid from the Star Wars universe. A small head sits atop of it, in place thanks to a magnet that is constantly kept upright thanks to the toy's inner workings. This allows the head to "float" on top of the body while it rolls around the floor. It also allows the BB-8 to move its "head" with "no" and "yes" signals or with a side-to-side movement.
To remote control the BB-8 you use a smartphone. It uses Bluetooth (with a 30m range) to connect to the BB-8 and you can control its movements using the screen as a trackpad. You can move it in any direction and speed will vary depending on settings. It can actually go really fast so you might have to start slow to practice driving it from a different point of view.
You can also set BB-8 to scout the area, which will send it around the floor, pretty much like a Roomba, going around obstacles it finds (it will bump into something and try to go around, it can't see things yet).
There are also some pre-defined movements. For example you can initiate a figure-of-8 movement or a square movement from the control pad and it will keep repeating it for a while.
Recently the Android app received an update that added voice command, something that was already available in the iOS version.
Most fun is the holographic messages. This feature mixes a bit or virtual reality (VR) with the fun. You basically record a brief video message that will appear on the screen when you focus on the BB-9. The message uses some effects to look like that original blue hologram R2D2 played in the original Star Wars episode IV... Lots of fun.
As mentioned you will need some practice to master the movement. Specially when it goes around some obstacle and you have to drive it backwards and controls are inverted.
While driving around or bumping into things the BB-9 will make funny noises and will shake its head depending on the situation or your commands. You can tap the screen to have it say "yes" or "no" so it's all lots of fun.
Below is the launch video provided by Sphero:
The BB-9 charges via an induction pad that is in the form of a cradle. It can go around for about one hour with a full charge.
Sometimes the head will fall - this happens on a particularly bad crash. Don't worry, just put it on top of the BB-8 and it will keep going around. Like the original Sphero dogs love this toy, so make sure you don't let your pet play with it while the head is "attached". Small parts, etc, etc...
I have been playing with my BB-8 since the release date, and yes, it's lots of fun.