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When the Star Wars franchise launched in the 1970s, fans could only dream of having a droid pal like R2-D2 and C-3PO. But that has all changed with the franchise’s latest droid, BB-8, who has been spotted in the trailers for the hotly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which premieres December 14 and opens in wide release on December 18.
Boulder, Colo.-based firm Sphero has created app-enabled versions of BB-8, and taking one home is a simple as a trip to your local toy or big-box store. Adam Wilson, co-founder and chief scientist at Sphero, recently appeared on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show to talk more about the toy. The K@W show airs 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Eastern time Monday-Friday on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111.
Sphero was already making “connected” or robotics toys that are app-driven when the Star Wars opportunity came along. But BB-8 provided Sphero the soul it was looking for in its robotics-powered toys. “We knew we were missing something — we were missing character, something like personality, the way that Pixar can bring that lamp to life Twitter ,” said Wilson.
A window for that opened in July 2014 when Wilson and his company’s co-founder, Ian Bernstein, met with Disney CEO Bob Iger. Disney Accelerator (which is powered by Techstars), the entertainment giant’s start-up incubator, happened to be a seed incubator for Sphero. Iger showed Wilson and Bernstein unreleased pictures of BB-8 on his phone, and encouraged them to build it.
“We knew we were missing something — we were missing character, something like personality.”
Wilson recalled Iger telling them, “You guys could just dominate this whole thing; this is perfect for you.” Sphero partnered with Disney and Lucasfilm on the toy. Disney also made a small investment in Sphero.
BB-8 is an interactive droid that responds to voice commands, wakes you up if you are idle and is packed with Star Wars themes and images. Wilson described the three modes in which BB-8 can be used. One is the “drive mode,” where users essentially become puppeteers. “You can drive it around, you can look its head around, you can stop, you can do little animated things like ‘yes’ and ‘no and shivers and you can imagine yourself recording a movie — bringing a character to life on your own,” Wilson said.
The second version is “patrol mode” where one could design a route and watch BB-8 patrol autonomously, said Wilson. He noted that there are plans to update that feature over time and expects it to be a powerful attraction for users. The third mode uses augmented reality where BB-8 projects holographic images through a smartphone. BB-8 can drive up to 30 meters at speeds of five miles per hour, and its battery will last an hour between charges.
Wilson said there are also plans to begin delivering content through BB-8, such as story messages and exclusive aspects about the movie. Meanwhile, BB-8 is already on sale, priced at $149.99 apiece. “The more BB-8s [and] the more droids, the better for the fans, that’s the most important part for us,” he said.