Robotics company Sphero have unlocked the secrets of the Force with their new toys — and they hope it’ll lead kids to fall in love with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Last year, Sphero teamed with Disney to release the app-enabled BB-8 droid, and it became the must-have toy of the Christmas season.

The toy could be controlled by a smartphone or tablet, or simply be left to roam autonomously and investigate its surroundings. It was also capable of responding to simple voice commands, employed an Augmented Reality feature to play ‘holographic’ videos on the user’s phone, and app updates even gave the little droid the ability to watch and respond to Star Wars: The Force Awakens when the film was released on home video.

But Sphero’s initial BB-8 was also produced in something of a hurry, as it was absolutely essential that the toy hit store shelves on ‘Force Friday’ (the day the bulk of the merchandise was released for The Force Awakens, on 4 September 2015).

And while it had the wow factor, it was somewhat lacking in lasting appeal — I’ve found that the toy had a tendency to blow people away when they first encountered it, only for it to end up on the shelf after the unprecedented hype surrounding The Force Awakens died down.

This year, the Colorado company is back for their second annual Force Friday with a new edition of BB-8 that addresses that criticism head-on.

The Special Edition BB-8 looks even more like its movie counterpart, with a matte finish and a little ‘battle damage’ reflecting its time in the dusty desert of Jakku, but its the toy’s improved functionality that really impresses.

The Special Edition comes with the Force Band, the first wearable technology devised by Sphero. It’s a wristband that lets you put your phone away — particularly ideal if you’ve got young kids you’d prefer not to give your smartphone to just so they can play with a toy — and control BB-8 with hand gestures and arm motions.

Yes, just like using the Force.

FB-WEB-9030_LEGAL

Sphero co-founder Ian Bernstein dropped by the Bmag office to show us how the Force Band works, and it’s great fun — you just push your arm forward to accelerate, raise your hand to speed up, lower your hand to slow down, point left and right to turn, rotate your wrist to spin, and make a ‘come hither’ gesture to bring BB-8 back towards you.

It takes some getting used to, but luckily, there’s an app for that. When you first switch the Force Band on and sync it up with BB-8, the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi guides you through a training mode to help you get the hang of your newfound Force ‘powers’ (you do need your phone for this part, but once you complete your Force Band training you can control BB-8 without it).

But the feature that looks to have the longest shelf life doesn’t really have anything to do with BB-8 at all. While wearing your Force Band out and about, you can enter ‘Force Awareness’ mode, which is a collecting game that enables you to pick up new weapons, vehicles and droids based on how far you’ve walked around. The Force Band has a haptic motor in it, so you can literally feel the ‘Force’ as you approach certain locations, at which point you’re given haptic (vibrational) and light cues on the Force Band to help you zero in on a particular item.

IMG_0036

It’s basically a cross between Topps’ digital Star Wars trading card app and Niantic’s Pokémon GO, except you are the Poké Ball. (It should be noted here that the Sphero team weren’t aware of Pokémon GO when they developed this mode.)

Using the app on your phone, you can unlock the ‘Holocrons’ (again, these are basically digital trading cards) that you’ve found, and add them to your collection. Some of the items you’ll find unlock new sound effects and vibrations on your Force Band, so you can effectively use your Force Band to pretend you’re swinging a lightsaber or firing a blaster with authentic sound effects and kickback (of course, most kids are perfectly capable of imagining these sound effects for themselves, but it’s still a cool feature).

It’s a minor detail, but I couldn’t help but notice that the Force Band looks appropriately weathered, like it really belongs in the worn-down, ‘used universe’ of the Star Wars films. That’s exactly the sort of story-first detail — one that gives personality to a toy — that Sphero were looking to add to their products when they teamed with Disney.

FB-WEB-8771_LEGAL

Sphero’s involvement with the Star Wars franchise began at the 2014 Tech Stars accelerator program for promising start-ups. It was actually the second time Sphero had participated in the program, and they weren’t sure it would be worth it for them, but the involvement of Disney sealed the deal.

“We had hints and clues that adding story and personality to our products was important, and we wanted to explore that,” Ian says.

“We went in [to Tech Stars] wanting to find ways to add more story and personality to our line. In the first week of the program, we had a meeting with Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney. We started talking about our products — you know, the usual spiel, ‘Hey, this is Sphero, we started in 2010…’ — and he stopped us and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know who you guys are. Now check this out.’

“He pulled out his phone, and he started flipping through set photos from The Force Awakens. This was a year and a half before the movie came out! Nobody knew about this stuff! And he gets to this picture of BB-8, and he says, ‘This kind of looks like your Sphero product. Can you guys make this?'”

The BB-8 used most often on the set of the film was a puppet, operated live on set by puppeteers. There were also several radio controlled units and some static prop versions, but they hadn’t had to build anything that could actually move like BB-8 in the real world — and that’s where Sphero, who specialise in making spherical robot toys, came in.

“We’d brought all our stuff with us to Tech Stars, so we had all our 3D printers and our parts and everything,” Ian remembers. “So that night, after the meeting with Bog Iger, we drew up a BB-8 head in CAD (computer-aided design software), we 3D-printed it, and we used magnets to put it together. We made a BB-8 and we sent Bob a video. It took a while for it to be officially licensed, but that was the first working BB-8.”

Ian’s a Star Wars fan, but he tried to find out as little as possible about the movie while he was working on the first BB-8. “I didn’t want to know a lot about it, so I could actually experience it,” he says.

When he saw the film, though, he fell head over heels for the little droid, just like the rest of the world did. Now, he hopes that the popularity of BB-8 — and Sphero, which also makes educational toys — will lead more kids to take an interest in robotics and the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Kids pick this stuff up so fast,” he says. “We had an event with young kids at the Apple Store in Sydney, and it was super cool to see how fast they pick up this stuff at that age. It’s really important for them to understand how stuff works.

“One story I told the kids was that, a month or two ago, I was working on the weekend and our guy came in to clean the office and he said, ‘Hey, I found this thing lying next to a trash can at one of the other businesses I was cleaning today, do you want to take a look at it?’ I said sure, so he brought it in and it was an Xbox One. It looked brand new. So I thought, OK, let’s plug it in and see what happens.

“It powered up and it looked fine but then it turned itself off. So I looked online and I found an article on how to open up an Xbox. It took five minutes. I powered it up again with the top off, and I could see the fan wasn’t working, it was stuck. So I thought, well, maybe the unit was overheating.

“I started looking on eBay to find another fan, and they only cost, like, $10. But then I started messing around with the one that was already in there, and it clicked into place and started spinning freely again. I decided to plug it back in and see what happened. Sure enough, the fan started spinning, the picture displayed, I waited like an hour, and it didn’t turn back off. So in literally 15 minutes, I’d fixed this brand new Xbox One.

“It’s worth hundreds of dollars, and someone had just left it next to a trash can. So that’s what I want to stress to kids — it’s important to understand how this stuff works. A lot of things are actually quite easy to fix if you know where to look. I mean, a 12-year-old kid could have fixed that Xbox!”

FB-WEB-0309_LEGAL

The Force Band and Special Edition BB-8 will be available from Friday 30 September at JB Hi-Fi, Myer, Apple Store and Harvey Norman. The Special Edition BB-8 and Force Band bundle will sell for $349.99; the Force Band — which can also be used with last year’s BB-8 by Sphero — will retail for $139.99 by itself.