Sphero BB-8: An iPhone-controlled toy from a galaxy far, far away

Sphero BB-8 photo by KRystian Kozerawski

Sphero BB-8 photo by KRystian Kozerawski

It’s a little over a month until the premiere of the new seventh episode of the Star Wars saga. As a fan of the old episodes 4, 5 and 6, and of the original characters Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia Organa, I am eagerly waiting for this. I am far more excited now compared to the utter lack of excitement I felt while I was waiting for the prequels. As in the case of those prequels, the new episodes introduce new characters - one of them being the new mascot droid BB-8, which has made its debut already as a robotic toy.

It is hard to judge this character by the available teasers, but it seems to be similar to R2D2 in many aspects. BB-8 is a small, pugnacious droid with a strong personality, communicating with the world in its own strange language of beeps. While the head of BB-8 resembles that of R2D2, the body of the droid differs drastically - it's a rolling ball instead of a trashcan-like torso standing on three legs.

When I saw the BB-8 for the very first time in one of the teasers for Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens, I instantly thought about Sphero, a small ball made of hard plastic that can be remotely controlled by the iPhone. It appears that the same association came to the Orbotix (now Sphero) team -- which in the summer of 2014 joined Disney Accelerator -- and Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney. Iger showed a picture of the BB-8 droid to participants of Accelerator and the Orbotix team presented its first concept about 24 hours later.

Original Sphero (left) and BB-8. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

Original Sphero (left) and BB-8. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

In many aspects, BB-8 is similar to the original Sphero — I would even say that the Sphero BB-8 is an evolution of the original Sphero. There is still a device, with a drive unit hidden inside a small orb made of hard plastic, that rolls on a flat surface. It still connects with an iPhone via Bluetooth and is controlled via a dedicated app.

In the case of BB-8 there is one more piece - a magnetically attached and steered head. Adding the head with its antennas and dummy camera eye, and letting the device move autonomously or perform some pre-programmed actions, makes this mechanical toy seem almost like a living creature -- a real mascot like all of the droid characters in the Star Wars saga. In my opinion, Sphero succeeded brilliantly in bringing this little droid from the movie to reality.

BB-8's head stays at the top of the rolling ball body thanks to the magnets and also to two small wheels that let the head always move to the top while the main body rolls. Those wheels are probably the only issue and disadvantage of the BB-8, as they work like a little vacuum cleaner. If you remember the old-time computer mouse with a hard rubber ball and rollers inside, or an Apple Mouse with the little scrolling rubber ball at the top, you know immediately what I’m talking about. Those pointing devices picked up all sorts of dirt and dust and required frequent cleaning. The mice were used on the surface of a desk, but BB-8 rolls on the floor or pavement. If you have dogs or cats (I have two dogs), you will find yourself cleaning the wheels and axle every 20 to 30 minutes.

Luckily, the head can be very easily detached for cleaning, although it rarely falls off accidentally. Sometimes when BB-8 is run at high speed under furniture it can "behead" itself.

The Sphero BB-8 app while the droid is on patrol. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

The Sphero BB-8 app while the droid is on patrol. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

BB-8 is controlled by an iPhone or iPad touchscreen via a dedicated app. As in the case of the original Sphero, you just need to move a finger on the screen to move the droid. Initially, steering can be difficult, but later you’ll gain a better feel for the controls and will steer BB-8 seamlessly.

The app also lets BB-8 perform some gestures, such as "yes" or "no", dancing with joy, or rolling in figure-eights and squares. There is also a boost button that allows for a burst of acceleration. The app provides a simple augmented reality solution that lets the user record and watch a simple holographic message -- to view it, you have to look at BB-8 through the lens of the iPhone camera. Remember R2D2 playing back Princess Leia Organa's message "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope”? That’s what your message looks like. For best results, one should view the BB-8 from the iPhone from a distance of 3 or 4 feet (roughly 1 meter). A shorter distance results in a misaligned “holographic projection” (the beams don’t appear to be coming straight from BB-8).

BB-8 Augmented Reality "hologram". Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

BB-8 Augmented Reality "hologram". Photo by Krystian Kozerawski. 

I have mentioned the autonomous mode in which Sphero is on patrol, rolling through the house, and sometimes getting into nooks and crannies you were previously unaware of. In fact, BB-8 has no additional sensors, so it will just roll until it meets a wall or piece of furniture. It then changes its direction as many times as needed to continue its hike around your home. During roaming, the BB-8 draws a map of its path in the app and tries to avoid known obstacles in the future. However, I haven't noticed any change in its behavior yet, so it may be a slow learner.

Sphero BB-8 connects with your iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth LE (low energy). Like the original Sphero, it is inductively charged when you place it on the dedicated charging dock. I am glad Sphero decided to use a micro-USB port for charging, since I can use one of the many chargers and micro-USB cables I have at home. A full charge is enough for about an hour of fun, not nearly long enough to make BB-8 a real autonomous mascot. However, the ease of using the charging dock makes the recharging process painless. I just need to pick up the droid from the floor and place it in the dock for a few hours to bring it back to life.

Sphero BB-8 on charging dock. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski.

Sphero BB-8 on charging dock. Photo by Krystian Kozerawski.

Is the Sphero BB-8 worth its price?

The Sphero BB-8 costs US$149 and is more expensive abroad, but I have to compare the price to the amount of fun it provides… especially the fun given to my two young boys and their excitement with this toy. The older one - who is six years old - appears to be an even stronger Star Wars fan than his Jedi Master (I mean... his father... I am your... I mean his... father). Like the original Sphero, BB-8 is not only fun, but a toy that can provoke play (like building a track out of pillows, bricks, shoes and furniture). In the case of BB-8, we get something more than just a remotely-controlled white ball made of hard plastic. We get a toy with personality that was almost literally taken out of our favorite movie saga.