Editor’s note: I’m hesitant to call this a “review”. It’s more like Michael having a massive, melodramatic excite-vomit all over Sphero’s new, interactive replica of the BB-8 droid from Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which I’m told is, like, a lasers movie or something. Apparently it’s got people feverish with anticipation, and there’s a man in it who’s got a light-sword with a funny hilt and stuff. Anyway, Michael’s been playing with this app-controlled rolling doohickie all week, and he’s quite smitten.
You do realise that we’re living in the future, right? A place of magic and fantasy, all made possible by science. This little tennis ball-sized droid from Sphero is a great example of something you might have seen as a kid in a science-fiction movie in the ’80s. The camera would have panned over a play area to show some kids under the supervision of a robot minder – and one of those kids would’ve been playing with something like this droid. You would have wished that you lived in this awesome-looking future, but the movie’s storyline was dated 2132AD, so there was no chance of you ever seeing something like it in your lifetime. Well, you were wrong. That future is now, minus the robotic nursery minder.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a giant leap in technology or anything like that. It’s fun and clever, but if you have a good working knowledge of modern technology, most of its tricks can be easily explained. That said, just think about what you’re doing when you play with the Sphero BB-8. You’re using a mobile device with a high-resolution screen to wirelessly control a toy that runs on magnets and a gyroscope. You can record a hologram of your smirking face saying, “Luke, I’m your dad LOL.” It’s just amazing and proves beyond any doubt [Really? – Ed.] that just a few years from now someone will invent an actual lightsaber that you’ll need a licence for and special training to use. We might even see it in the next 30 years [REALLY? – Ed.], and they’d make a significant upgrade from staging battles using mom’s used tinfoil rolls. I’ve always thought that the best use of lightsaber technology would be as the blades of a lawn mower.
That’s probably enough on the magic of science and how art becomes life; let’s get into the details of this Sphero BB-8. One rare and welcome feature is that everything you see in the promotional videos can be achieved in real life and it all works pretty much exactly as advertised. The only surprise is the size of the thing: it’s about the size of a tennis ball. I’m not sure why I was expecting it to be bigger [LOL – Ed.], but then I have watched the Force Awakens trailer a million times already and in my mind this guy is about as big as R2-D2 (but rounder).
In the box you get a USB cable that plugs into your PC or suitable wall outlet, a charging base with blue indicator light and the droid itself made up of two separate parts (the dome head and ball body). The body parts stick together using the magic of magnets and the dome head has two small wheels that allow it to move freely over the body. The little wheels do get dirty so keep an earbud handy (it’s a bit like working with those old ball-based mice all over again), unless it’s just our office floors that are filthy.
The other essential component that isn’t in the box is the app that must be downloaded and paired with the droid via Bluetooth. It’s around 150MB, so not a big issue but something you’re going to need to remember if you’re buying this for the kids this festive season. Read out loud: you need a cell phone to use it. Once the app is initialized (this is done by holding the phone near the droid) you can select drive, message and patrol. There is a settings option that changes measurement units and sounds, and if you dig deep enough you’ll find a demo mode and a firmware update button. Driving is the primary function of the droid and once you’ve orientated it you can move it around and rotate the body. There are some buttons for predetermined patrol patterns and other fun functions. Just a note: cables on the ground, steps and swimming pools are natural enemies of the BB-8 droid, so it’s not for little three-year old Timmy to drive.
If this all sounds like too much work you can instruct the BB-8 to patrol. In this mode the droid beeps and bumps its way around the room. On the app side, a great many screens of feedback can be accessed, from pathing to acceleration. It’s fun to watch and perhaps in the future this droid could map out your home. For now it’s all automatic, but rumoured future plans include customisation options and, as you know, once the community gets behind something like this the sky is the limit.
The final feature is “message”. Remember how we were introduced to holographic messages in Episode IV: A New Hope? With this fantastic toy holding your phone over the droid will cause your phone screen to display what looks like recorded holographic messages played back by the BB-8 – just like in the movie. The big bonus is that you can even record your own cute messages as holograms and play them to cheer up sad people. This is a smart and innovative use of augmented reality tech. The BB-8 droid is a fun, cute toy and while it’s a little on the pricey side it does give you the chance to own a little piece of the new Star Wars before the world goes mad on 18 December. If you’ve got the money, get it.
If you want to see inside the BB-8, have a look at this: