Sphero’s heavily anticipated BB-8 droid is real, and it’s spectacular. Discover the story of how a home-schooled kid from the middle of nowhere built the gadget of the year.
We’re still four months away from the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the heavily anticipated film already has a breakout star – BB-8, the adorable rolling ball robot glimpsed briefly in the trailers.
Fans in attendance at Star Wars Celebration and Comic-Con were stunned when a real-life version of BB-8 built by Sphero, a Colorado company that specialises in spherical robot toys, appeared on stage, moving freely and brimming with personality. Just like the droid seen in the trailers, its body rolled around the stage on one axis while its head somehow turned on another.
YouTube videos of BB-8’s live appearances quickly racked up millions of views, and fans immediately began to wish that Sphero would release a version of the droid they could bring home.
Tomorrow, their wish comes true. A miniature version of the droid has made a ‘surprise’ appearance on store shelves just in time for the festive season, as part of Disney’s massive Force Friday roll-out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. (In Brisbane, Toys ‘R’ Us stores at Westfield Garden City and Aspley Hypermarket will throw their doors open at midnight tonight to start selling the new range.)
Even with its $250 price tag in Australia, BB-8 will be the must-have gadget under this year’s Christmas trees.
The remarkable toy can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet, or left to roam autonomously and investigate its surroundings. It can recognise and respond to your voice commands, and can show off a range of expressions with the tap of a button. It even employs an Augmented Reality feature to record, send and view virtual ‘holographic’ videos.
Its attitude and actions reportedly evolve as you interact with it, although we haven’t had our hands on one long enough yet to test this out ourselves.
We did get the chance to play with one in the Bmag office while it was still under a strict embargo, and we were blown away by its agile movement and durability – which we found out about the hard way, when we accidentally drove this top-secret piece of tech off a table and into a wall at full speed. (It pulled through without a scratch, thanks to its tough polycarbonate shell.)
BB-8 was built by Sphero at the request of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who recruited the company to take part in the Disney Accelerator program for emerging entrepreneurs while The Force Awakens was in production. When the film’s concept artists and puppeteers showed him what they were working on, Iger immediately realised that Sphero could make BB-8 function in real life.
“During the first week of the Disney Accelerator program we had our initial meeting with Bob Iger,” remembers Ian Bernstein, Sphero’s co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, who was in Brisbane recently for QUT’s Robotronica festival.
“It was in that meeting that he showed us a photo of BB-8. The movie was already well into filming, but that was our first introduction to anything beyond the extremely limited public details of it… afterwards, we went back to our desks and sketched out what we had seen for only about 15 seconds or so in our meeting.
“That night, when the other Accelerator companies had left, we drew it up in CAD (computer-aided design software), 3D-printed the necessary pieces, and built our first BB-8 out of a modified Sphero 2.0. All in all I’d say the first one took us about two hours — of course, thousands and thousands of hours of work had already been put into Sphero to make that possible.
“There are many versions of BB-8 that work in various ways — most of them I can’t reveal. However, the small version we have made for the home is very similar to Sphero. Sphero is like a robotic segway inside of a sphere.”
This was exactly the sort of synergy Ian and Sphero co-founder Adam Wilson were looking for when they decided to take part in the Disney Accelerator program. They’d already raised $30 million in capital, so they weren’t just doing it for the $120,000 grant.
“We knew we had a lot of amazing technology, but we also knew that we weren’t that strong at creating characters, personalities, and stories behind our products. It doesn’t get any better than Disney, Pixar, Lucas, Marvel, ABC and ESPN to learn that from! We did it to be able to learn from the best and it was well worth it.”
The path that led Ian to developing Sphero — and, eventually, BB-8 — has a little of the Star Wars mythology to it. He grew up in an out-of-the-way desert town (in New Mexico, not Tatooine), where he developed an obsession with robotics and dreamed of doing something more with his abilities.
“Ever since I was a young kid I always liked to take things apart. I remember when I was four or five years old I had a box of parts from taking apart my parents’ old cameras, cassette players, and other things. When I was 11 my dad, who is a professional guitarist, started trading guitar lessons with a guy named Phil in exchange for Phil teaching me about electronics.
“One day Phil showed me a flyer for the 1995 International BEAM Robotics Games in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was a couple hours from where I grew up. My dad ended up taking me. In addition to the competitions, they also had a workshop where people could build their own robots! I ended up building three and I was totally hooked. My dad has always been a huge supporter.”
His dad was such a big supporter, in fact, that Ian was allowed to stay home and tinker with robots instead of going to school.
“I don’t know if home schooling was good or bad but I pretty much just studied whatever I wanted. I literally spent 17 hours a day on the internet and at my desk building robots. I grew up in the middle of nowhere so there really wasn’t anything else to do. Until college I had never formally studied history, English, or anything else like that. Since I was on the internet all day, though, I would just look stuff up if I was curious… the disadvantage of that method is that my standardised test scores were low, so I had to go to a smaller university.”
In 2006, Ian dropped out of university and started a web development company while doing part-time work at a robotics company called RoadNarrows.
“We were working on humanoid robots, but the processors, touch screens, and other components we were selling were quite expensive. One night while playing with my iPhone in late 2009 I thought, why can’t I use my phone as the brains for these robots? I looked online and quickly realised that not only were people not controlling robots from their smartphones, but aside from a couple examples, people weren’t controlling any sort of physical devices from their smartphones. I saw an opportunity, met my co-founder Adam Wilson, and with a small loan from my dad we started prototyping.
“We could turn on my car and roll down the windows from a phone app, control lights, and open my garage door. It was with those demos that we got into Techstars Boulder 2010 and during the first night of the program we stumbled upon the Sphero idea.”
The ‘Sphero idea’ was to create a rolling ball robot that could be controlled by your phone, and easily hacked and programmed by its users. That latter feature has made Sphero devices attractive to educators, leading to the release of the Sphero 2.0 SPRK (Schools/Parents/Robots/Kids) Edition last month.
“When we started the company five years ago we knew we wanted all of our products to be as open as possible so people could be creative around them, but taking it to this level wasn’t something we hadn’t planned. Sphero SPRK Edition is similar to a robot I built when I was 12 years old that inspired me to become passionate about robotics, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited about it.”
While our Prime Minister has mocked the idea of teaching coding to kids, Ian believes it’s essential.
“Having knowledge of the language of computers is going to be extremely important. All kids don’t need to be rock star programmers but having knowledge of the basics is going to be very important going forward. Robots are going to start taking over more and more of our mundane and rudimentary jobs that are currently out there and that means the job market will shift. It doesn’t mean there will be any fewer jobs, it just means the available jobs will be different, and having a deeper understanding of computers is going to be key because that is what is what is going to be more and more relevant in our lives in the future.”
In a very real sense, Ian sees BB-8 and the popularity of the Star Wars franchise as a Trojan horse to introduce more serious robotics to a wider audience.
“BB-8 is the perfect next step to get us one step closer to our goal of putting a robot in every home. Disney has been fantastic to work with and they’ve been helpful in getting us into many of our new stores.
“It’s all going back into the development of new and innovative products. There is a reason I work from 9am until after midnight every day. I love what I do and my personal goal is to put a robot in every home. BB-8 will be in a lot of homes, but in the end, it’s still a toy… I want to make a robot that becomes part of the family, like Rosie from The Jetsons.
“I don’t think anyone can argue that at some point in the future every home will have a robot, and we are going to be the company creating them.”
See BB-8 in action at www.sphero.com/starwars.