The world first met BB-8 last November in the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The astromech droid rolled across the screen and into the hearts of many fans. Feelings for the rolling droid continued to grow when it made an appearance at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim — well, it wasn’t so much an appearance as it was a grand entrance. People were dazzled by the technology on display and charmed by the personality emanating from BB-8. Fans hoped merchandise for the upcoming film would include moving versions of the droid, and now that Force Friday has arrived, dreams about BB-8 toys have come true.
Sphero has created an app-enabled BB-8 toy that you can control with your smart device. BB-8 can also patrol on its own, respond to voice commands, and use augmented reality (AR) to transmit holographic videos. As Sphero’s director of product Allen Richardson says, it’s a toy like no other. “Our BB-8 is obviously a little bit different than a RC or typical toy. BB-8 can communicate with your smart device. It has a companion app that goes along with it so you will control him from your phone — it’s basically like a remote control, but so much more. You’re going to be able to drive him around. You’re going to be able to get feedback from him.” As BB-8 patrols, he also gathers information about his surroundings that he later relays to you in a detailed report.
Sphero’s existing technology was ideally suited for adapting the film version of BB-8 into a marketable toy. Their flagship product is a ball robot that they’ve had on the marketplace for about four years. The company went through an accelerated program with Disney recently and from there learned about the possibility of working on a BB-8 toy. Richardson says there were obviously different challenges they weren’t used to when designing BB-8 — like figuring out how to attach the head. The process took a little while. “It’s really only been over the course of the last 10 months that we’ve been able to bring everything together,” he says. “We have all hands on deck. It’s been amazing. Everybody has been going full bore to get BB-8 out the door for Force Friday.”
Creating any toy is about more than merely getting the specs and movements right. It’s important to capture the character’s personality. Droids in the Star Wars galaxy may be made of nuts and bolts, but they show spirit. Richardson says it was important for them to fully bring their BB-8 toy to life, and that they were able to do so with the help of Lucasfilm. Sphero saw the teasers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and had access to some small bits of information not available to the public. They used what they had along with feedback they received from Lucasfilm and Disney to move forward. Richardson emphasizes Sphero wouldn’t have made it as far as they did without that back and forth communication and relationship.
“We’ve been able to to create a system of programming — the physical animation of BB-8 very easily,” Richardson explains. “So, in the background, we can puppeteer digitally what we want it to do physically. We’ve also been able to go through and create how he might say yes or how he might say no. Those animations coupled with the sounds we’ve received from Lucasfilm help build that story and build that personality. Again, we are taking our lead from what Lucasfilm tells and what Disney has told us. Because we haven’t seen the film, we have to take their word for it [on whether BB-8 is an accurate representation] — they’re closer to it than we are and we’ve built the personality as best as we can based on what they’re telling us.”
Sphero’s BB-8 toy has multiple bells and whistles, but what Richardson is most excited for fans to discover comes down to the basics. “It sounds simple, but when they see it move for the first time, it’s magic. We had early prototypes where we just had a white ball with a white head. It moved, and it was cool. And you think, ‘We can actually do this. It’s going to be great.’ But when you see a sample with the BB-8 paint scheme and it’s moving, it does something to your brain. I was blown away the first time I saw it move. Just the pure joy of seeing it move and driving it around is just amazing.”