How Does BB-8, Everyone’s New Favorite ‘Star Wars’ Character, Actually Work?
If you saw any of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens live stream from Star Wars Celebration, there were two immediate takeaways. One: that trailer tho. Two: BB-8, the new ball droid, who might just be the cutest thing ever. (Someone already even got a BB-8 tattoo!) It wasn't his presence in the Star Wars trailer (which was limited to just a very brief appearance), but his live appearance.
When announced, BB-8 came out and curiously rolled around the stage. He seemed surprised by the crowd, and almost immediately started sizing up R2-D2. With his head free-floating around on his circular body, he seemed so real. It was like watching a dog crossed with Wall-E.
It's one thing to pull this off in a movie where strings, rods and tracks can be digitally erased, but live on stage in front of an audience of thousands is a completely different how did Disney and Lucasfilm do this?
During the panel, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy thanked Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger for finding “the company that helped us discover the technology of what you're seeing right now.” She didn't name the company on the panel, but afterward we learned it was a Colorado based company named Sphero. Back in October of 2014, Sphero was one of 10 start-up companies in Disney's “accelerator” program that invested $120,000 in the firms, and assigned a Disney mentor to work with each of them. Sphero's mentor? Bob Iger.
Though filming on The Force Awakens wound up wrapping just a few weeks later, Iger immediately saw the possibility to collaborate with Sphero on making real life BB-8 models and toys. (At the time, it was noted that Sphero would be working with Iger and Disney on something Star Wars related, but neither company would specify what that would be.) What sparked Disney's interest? Here's a video on one of Sphero's first toys, which is essentially a tennis ball that you can control — both movement and lighting — via a bluetooth-enabled app on your phone or tablet.
We reached out to Sphero to ask how they applied their technology to BB-8, but executives at the company would not elaborate. [Rob Maigret, Chief Creative Officer did say, in a statement e-mailed to ScreenCrush, “This is the beginning of a whole new category of consumer products. You can own a piece of the movie, have it in your home, and relive an experience that is authentic to the entertainment on the screen. Our hardware and software technology advancements make it possible to build the toys of the future now. We are deepening the user connection in ways that, until today, have only been portrayed in science fiction.”]
To see how BB-8 works though, we can look at how the original Sphero works.
If BB-8 is anything like Sphero, his insides are made up like a Segway scooter — a gyroscope and an accelerometer. The gyroscope tells the robot essentially which way is up, and which way the controller would like it to go. Those control the wheels flush to the side of the ball you see on the sides that make it actually move.
That's all well and good for just one ball, but the most remarkable thing about BB-8 was the head that moved independently of the rolling body. BB-8 could roll on one axis while his head was turning on another.
With Sphero and Disney not talking, no one really knows for sure, but the going theory is magnets; namely that there are a series of magnetic wheels (or even one giant magnet wheel) and ball bearings that are keeping the head on top of the body while it moves. Ralph Hollis, a research professor in the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, told Mashable that he believes that the driving force behind BB-8 is actually not the body, but the head, which comprises all the gyroscopic parts that are controlling a dummy body.
The other possibility, posed by Jalopnik, is that the head is the dummy, powered by the robot body. We won't try to repeat their hypothesis here, but this graphic sums it up.
Now, it's important to remember that the BB-8 droid that you saw rolling around at Star Wars Celebration, is not the one you will see on screen in The Force Awakens. Despite the fact that it would have been easier to use CGI for BB-8, it was actually an animatronic creation built specifically for the movie. “Neil Scanlan and his incredible team....built and puppeteered BB-8 in the movie, and did an extraordinary job,” J.J. Abrams told the Celebration crowd. It was controlled on set by a puppeteer who was then digitally erased from the movie.
We'll imagine that what you saw on stage was just the first introduction to a real life BB-8, specifically a line of toys. We can't imagine Disney investing in Sphero just for one single presentation. You can bet that there will be a line of bluetooth-controlled BB-8/Sphero toys just in time for The Force Awakens to hit theaters during the holiday season. And you can bet, based on his reaction at Star Wars Celebration, that everyone is going to want one.
UPDATE: The New York Times confirms that Disney is planning a set of Sphero-based BB-8 toys. “The iPhone-controlled BB-8 toys, about the size of a large Granny Smith apple, will be sold in Disney Stores and other specialty retailers this holiday season.”
Though the Times report specifically mentions the iPhone, we’ll assume that, like the Sphero, it will actually be powered by Bluetooth so Android devices will also be compatible. The current gen Sphero costs $129.99, but with the Star Wars branding, you can expect this version to be slightly pricier. You can stay updated on the latest BB-8 toy news by signing up here at the Sphero web site.
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