NEW YORK — The new BB-8 droid, which will appear in "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" in December, already has a high-tech mini-me or two — and Sphero's version in particular has a trick or two up its sleeve for when the movie comes out.
There's just something about BB-8: With no more than movie-trailer glimpses, its roly-poly form with perilously perched head has the power to mesmerize and delight. It looks like nothing else, and yet seems somehow singularly "Star Wars," with just as much innate personality as its cousin R2-D2.
Space.com got a closer look at Sphero's incarnation of the little droid at New York Comic Con when we caught up with Sphero co-founder and Chief Software Architect Adam Wilson. He told us about the toy's creation and inspiration, and the future plans for the technology (and planned, movie-based updates to the droid itself). ['Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens': New Trailer]
BB-8 isn't Wilson's first foray into the rolling-robot field: Around 5 years ago, he and Sphero co-founder Ian Bernstein created the programmable ball-shaped robot Sphero within the Techstars accelerator program. Then, about a year ago, the two were invited to join a new accelerator program, a collaboration between Disney and Techstars.
"We were like, 'We're great at robots, but we suck at characters,'" Wilson told Space.com. "So let's go do this Disney thing. We did it, and it happened to be perfect for us."
Disney CEO Bob Iger was assigned as their mentor, and introduced the team to the new "Star Wars" character BB-8. That night, the Sphero team 3D-printed and hacked together a version of BB-8 not too different from the one that eventually went on sale, at least in terms of hardware. The firmware, or permanent software programming, would change a great deal over time.
The final BB-8 can roll around controlled by an app on a smart device, can obey voice commands via that same device and can go into its own autonomous wandering mode where it keeps track of the obstacles it runs into. Sphero tweaked the robot to mimic the rolling pattern and mannerisms of the movie droid, too.
Another aspect that they fine-tuned, Wilson said, was the "pad printing" process, where they overlaid more than 120 different 2D patterns onto BB-8's 3D body.
"We actually learned some of these techniques just following the greats, like LEGO," Wilson said. "They are the best at pad printing ever, for their minifigs, and they look so detailed, look so great. We took a lot of advice from them."
Sphero's ultimate vision, Wilson said, is to put a robot in every home. The company aims to do that through fun robots, rather than something more directly functional like a vacuum — and BB-8 is one step down that path. A future, entertaining, loveable character with artificial intelligence, which can understand what you ask it for and predict what you'll need, would have the potential to become a ubiquitous home robot, Wilson said. As for the form factor, there's something magical about an autonomously rolling ball, he said, and the form factor is hardy enough to serve as a programming practice tool and rough-and-tumble sidekick.
When asked if there would be a full-sized BB-8 in the works, like the one used to film the new movie, Wilson couldn't give an answer — but said that he suspected Disney will be coming to Sphero with more products to bring to life. (Hasbro's BB-8 toy, propelled by remote control, is around 9 inches, or 23 centimeters, to Sphero BB-8's 4.5 inches, or 11 cm.)
In the meantime, Wilson said, owners of Sphero's BB-8, which retails for $150, can expect some new things in store as the movie approaches: "We have over-the-air updates for the firmware and over-the-air updates for your app," he said. "So we can update the entire experience, and we put a lot of stuff in there that will surprise people as it comes out. We don't give it all to them right at the beginning. As the movie starts coming out, more stuff will happen."
Throughout, the team has been driven by an abiding love of "Star Wars" — Wilson's been a fan all his life, he said. So bringing BB-8 into the real world was a passion rather than just a job. "We are going to deliver the best freaking 'Star Wars' toy they will ever see," he said. "That was our goal."