Star Wars and Sphero were a match made in heaven. The company had spent a few years in relative startup obscurity when Disney came along with the design for a new droid debuting in the upcoming trilogy. The resulting BB-8 remote control device changed the company’s fortunes overnight. With The Last Jedi a few months away, the companies are looking to recapture the magic with another brand new, spherical droid and the return of an all-time Star Wars classic.
Once again, Sphero is offering us the first long look at a droid set to debut in a new film. Until now, BB-9E’s only appearance was on some Lego Star Wars: Episode VIII packaging that leaked out early. The new droid looks a bit like the adorable BB-8 gone over to the Dark Side. As the naming convention implies, the robot comes from the same astromech series as BB-8 — albeit with a black paint job to suit the needs of the First Order and a conical head similar to the R5 droid.
From Sphero’s standpoint, this one wasn’t much of a leap. For the most part, creating the dark side droid just involved some aesthetic changes — though the company has included some nice new touches, like illuminating lights on the head that are powered via induction from its base. The droid also ships with what the company calls an “augmented reality platform” that is essentially a recessed piece of plastic that allows the robot to roll in place so you can play an AR game around it without it actually having to move. That will also start shipping with new BB-8s starting today.
We’ve been playing around with the BB-9E here at the office, and the experience is pretty much exactly what you get with its predecessor. There are some pre-programmed moves, or you can drive it around with controls on the smartphone app. As with BB-8, controlling the little sphere takes some getting used to. I should note that the version we got isn’t completely finished — nor is the version that goes on sale tomorrow as part of Force Friday.
Like BB-8, the new droid will be updated regularly over the air. That means, among other things, that the company can essentially ship an unfinalized version. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work perfectly well (it does), it’s just that the droid doesn’t sound like it will in the movie. In true Star Wars fashion, Disney has decided to leave something up to the imagination here. Instead, the company offers up a rough approximation of the sorts of beeps the robot will ultimately get, with a firmware upgrade bringing movie sounds down the line.
Naturally, the company didn’t run into any of the same issues when looking for sound effects for its other new creation, the Sphero R2-D2. In fact, the startup’s CCO tells me that the team got full access to the Star Wars sound archive. Still, the sound effects are pulled entirely from Episode IV, meaning the R2 unit isn’t all battle worn from tangling with Jabba the Hutt and the like.
As with other recent Sphero toys like Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen, R2 is a step away from the core tech on which the company was built. But the toy does leverage a lot of the technology it built to make the original BB-8 far more well-rounded and lifelike than it had seemingly any right to be. The toy uses the same app as BB-8 — you can just keep adding droids to the lineup, and once all the firmware is in place, they’ll be able to interact with one another and the films while you watch. It’s kind of like MST3K, but with bleeps and bloops in place of jokes.
R2 uses the same basic control scheme as BB-8, as well. It’s a mixture of pre-programmed moves taken from the movie, from disappointment to excitement, to playing dead and touch-based movement. You also can move the head around independently. Seems like there’s good opportunity to install a camera there for reconnaissance — perhaps on a premium version, Sphero tells me.
R2-D2’s control scheme is much easier to master than BB-8. There’s something about trying to drive around a ball that’s hard to wrap your head around — no such issue with a droid that has a clear front and back. And the combination of movie sounds and pre-programmed moves makes for a really authentic experience. I’m probably biased in my old-school Star Wars fandom, but R2 is the one that really makes me jealous of kids these days.
BB-9E and R2-D2 run $149 and $179, respectively. Neither are what you’d call cheap, but they’re both bound to sell at a brisk pace as Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi heads to theaters.