The droid you’ve been looking for
In a perfect marriage of movie marketing and consumer robotics, Star Wars fans can today buy their own BB-8 droid they can control with a smartphone or tablet
With just over three months to go until Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters (at the time of writing this), Disney and Lucasfilm are getting ready to commence the next wave of marketing for their highly-anticipated tentpole. The arrival of “Force Friday” on September 4 essentially marks the official beginning of this, as all of the tie-in merchandise (ranging from books to Hasbro action figures) will hit shelves. The event was such a monumental occasion that Lucasfilm hosted a global unboxing event today, debuting all kinds of toys and collectables ahead of the big day. And not only will these items make a fine addition to any Star Wars fan’s collection, they may even have some clues pertaining to the film’s elusive plot.
First up is the new astromech droid BB-8, who is poised to become one of the saga’s most marketable new characters. The adorable little soccer ball robot has already made a tremendous impression with moviegoers, as he was created and operates practically. Now those who want to have their own BB-8 can have that chance, thanks to the toy company Sphero. Watch the commercial for their interactive BB-8 toy below:
Just like the droid that features in the trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, this BB-8 is made up of two parts. His body is a rolling ball while his head stays upright while staying attached to the spinning body below.
This is not just a case of a toy company cashing in on movie merchandise. Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy says Sphero, which has a range of app-controlled robots including the ball Sphero, was “the company that helps us discover the technology” of making a working BB-8 droid for the Star Wars movie launch. Sphero has been teasing the release of its BB-8 droid for weeks with a cut-out image on its website promising “this is the droid you’ve been looking for”.
This BB-8 toy is quite the technological achievement, as consumers will be able to sync it up with their mobile device to give it commands, move around, and even record holographic messages. The Star Wars movies were always ones to push the boundaries in technology, so it’s fitting to see their toy line follow suit.
Like the original Sphero, BB-8 can be controlled with an iOS or Android app. But being a Star Wars robot, BB-8 has extra features, including a hologram feature in the app so that if you look at your smartphone you can see the palm-sized robot project a 3D message. If you’ve ever wanted to recreate the famous “help me Obi-Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope” message, this is your chance. The head of the robot attaches to the body with magnets. The head generally sits on top of the droid, but steer BB-8 under low furniture and the head will slide down the body of the robot as the droid keeps moving.
From Sphero’s official production description: “Meet BB-8 – the app-enabled Droid that’s as authentic as it is advanced. BB-8 has something unlike any other robot – an adaptive personality that changes as you play. Based on your interactions, BB-8 will show a range of expressions and even perk up when you give voice commands. Set it to patrol and watch your Droid explore autonomously, make up your own adventure and guide BB-8 yourself, or create and view holographic recordings.”
Details on the BB-8’s functionality:
- Bluetooth Smart
- 60 Minute Battery Life
- Inductive Charging
- Gyroscopic Propulsion
- 30m Range
Beyond the toy’s movie-realistic appearance and emotive design (example: BB-8 looks around when sitting on his charging stand), sensors help the droid navigate and react to its environment, even remembering the location of stationary objects. Sphero’s BB-8 is on sale now from retailers including JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman for $249.95. Source: ScreenRant.Com, News.Com.
The Hasbro BB-8 version
It’s also worth nothing that in addition to Sphero’s app-controlled BB-8, Target is also selling a lower-cost traditional remote controlled BB-8 from Hasbro (shown in the video below) – which lacks many of the features that make the Sphero model so desirable. That’s not to say that the Target BB-8 isn’t worth the $79.99 the retailer is charging; yet, buyers should be aware of which version they’re out to buy, and how much they’re willing to spend to get their BB-8 fix, so as not to get the wrong version.
BB-8, a very short history
“They never cease to amaze me with what they’re able to come up with, you know? I said, ‘How are you ever gonna top R2-D2, the most adorable droid in movie history?'”
― Mark Hamill on BB-8
BB-8 was an astromech droid who operated approximately thirty years after the Battle of Endor. The droid was at one point operating in the desert of the planet Jakku. It had a domed head, similar to that of R2 series astromech droids, with the bulk of its body made up of a ball that the droid rolled on. BB-8 was mostly white, with some silver and orange on its body, as well as a black eye-piece. The droid belonged to Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and thus was able to fit into a T-70 X-wing fighter’s droid socket.
BB-8 was first revealed in the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens on November 28, 2014. Its name was revealed by Entertainment Weekly in an exclusive trading card. The character was realized by the Pinewood Studios creature shop as a practical, functioning robot. BB-8’s name was chosen by Episode VII director J.J. Abrams because of the droid’s round and bouncy look. Abrams is also quoted with saying, “I named him BB-8 because it was almost onomatopoeia. It was sort of how he looked to me, with the 8, obviously, and then the two B’s”. The name was conceived early on in Episode VII‘s production and was one of the few to never be changed. Source: Wookiepedia.
How BB-8 works?
“There were a lot of discussions about how having a CG BB-8 would be so much easier, but we also knew it would be better for the film, for the actors, for the sets, for the look of it, if it were performed.”
– J.J. Abrams
BB-8 has a ball shaped body and a domed head that resembles that of the R2 series droids, whose most popular unit is R2-D2 but BB-8’s body rolls independently from the head, which always stays near the vertical axis of the droid. Like the R2 series, BB-8 also fits in the droid socket of an X-Wing starfighter. Specifically the T-70 x-Wing fighter model used by the Resistance thirty years after the Battle of Endor.
Director J.J. Abrams went old school during production of The Force Awakens. The original trilogy, which mainly used real sets and props, had a special vibe that was missing in the prequel trilogy. Abrams wanted Episode VII to feel organic and tactile, closer in spirit to the original movies. To achieve that, they used as many practical effects as possible, and BB-8 was no exception.
The idea of a rolling robot was cool but complex. How do you bring alive a droid like that? CGI would have been the logical choice, but J.J. wanted a real prop. The Pinewood Studios’ Creature Shop took on the challenge and eventually succeeded at building and puppeteering BB-8 in the film.
So, how does BB-8 work? What kind of black magic powers it? Well, what we know for sure is that it’s not driven by a hamster as some theories suggest. The closest thing out there is the Sphero ball, and turns out that Sphero was one of ten start-ups funded by Disney’s first accelerator program in 2014. Disney CEO Bob Iger himself was Sphero’s mentor inside the company. When he learnt about the filmmakers trying to build a rolling droid, he knew the right people for the job.
BB-8 and the Sphero are likely to share a very similar internal mechanism. As a matter of fact, some DIYers have alredy customized their Sphero balls to make them look like BB-8. The RC robotic ball uses a gyroscope to determine which way is down and two wheels to move the sphere from inside. The base plate (batteries included) serves as a counterweight to keep the wheels acting against the lower half of the sphere. There’s also a vertical bearing that helps to keep the wheels in contact with the walls.
But what about the floating head? Because that’s actually the jaw-dropping part. Here’s where all the pieces come together. There is a patent by Disney’s Imagineering R&D group that sheds some light on the head mechanism. Surprisingly, the patent was filed in 2010, two years before Disney acquired Lucasfilm and four years before they invested in Sphero. Looks like they were into rolling droids before anyone suspected. Click on the image to enlarge:
3D to show how the inner mechanism of the cutest astromech in the galaxy might look like:
This solution represents the most spread theory on the internet. The first one to sketch it out was Jason Torchinsky. It is the theory that better matches the information from the patent. The motorized arm has a spherical joint that allows it to flex in any direction. The head rotation motor is probably attached to the end of the mast. The head itself is probably very light and has magnetic rollers attached to the base. That would allow it to smoothly roll over the spheric body.