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Droid sidekicks have always played an important part in the success of the Star Wars franchise. What, after all, would the original trilogy have been without R2-D2 and C3PO? When the latest installment arrives in the shape of The Force Awakens, it’ll come with a new droid: BB-8. And almost inevitably, a toy version made it to shelves before the film got anywhere near a cinema.
For those of you who’ve been wilfully ignoring anything to do with Star Wars over the past few weeks, here’s how Wookiepedia describes the spherical droid:
BB-8 was an astromech droid who operated approximately thirty years after the Battle of Endor. The droid was at one point operating in the desert of the planet Jakku. It had a domed head, similar to that of R2 series astromech droids, with the bulk of its body made up of a ball that the droid rolled on. BB-8 was mostly white, with some silver and orange on its body, as well as a black eye-piece. The droid belonged to Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and thus was able to fit into a T-70 X-wing fighter’s droid socket.
What you really need to know though is that it’s cute, in a plucky kind of way. And that in turn means that there are few companies better placed to make a toy version than Sphero, company known for making robotic balls that can be controlled with a tablet or smartphone.
We recently got to spend some time with its take on BB-8 and while we’re certain it’ll appeal to the fans, we do have a few reservations.
BB-8’s out-of-the-box setup is pretty simple. Alongside the heady and body sections there’s a charging dock (which uses a standard micro-USB connection). While the droid’s charging, you can download the Sphero BB-8 app.
Using Bluetooth, the app allows you to connect with and control your BB-8 droid, which is about the size of a small orange. There’s a tutorial that’ll show you how to line the two up and, once you’ve done so, the controls are fairly simple.
You can drive BB-8 around freely (terrorising any cats which happen to be nearby), set to go on independent scouting missions, and make it travel in pre-determined shapes. Your BB-8 unit can also be trained to recognise and react to your voice, something it borrows from other Sphero products and which only adds to the overall “cute” factor.
They’re all pretty simple actions which, in and of themselves, only offer a few hours of entertainment. That is, of course, the view of jaundiced adult we’re pretty sure it would all be a lot more fun if it were part of a wider play activity.
You will crash
At this stage it’s worth mentioning that while BB-8 is pretty easy to control, there will be a short learning period. And unless you have the luxury of an empty school gymnasium, that learning period will likely entail a fair amount of crashing.
And when you crash, BB-8’s head will fall off its body — despite the best efforts of the rotating magnets keeping the two together. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem — you just reattach the head and get going again — but it can be a bit of an issue if the head goes spinning off under a couch. We’d also advise against playing with BB-8 if there are overly curious toddlers or puppies around.
On the subject of holograms
One feature that the advertising for the BB-8 made quite a big deal of is the ability to record and watch holograms. Strictly speaking, they’re augmented reality representations of holograms and you have to line your phone up at exactly the right angle with BB-8 to get the desired effect.
Thing is, when I showed off this feature to other people in the office, they were blown away. Once again, I was reminded that not everyone is a cynical tech journalist and that we’ve actually made pretty impressive progress in the consumer AR space.
The cost of fandom
At this point, you may be thinking that BB-8 by Sphero is the perfect gift for the Star Wars geek in your life. Before you go out and buy one though, we suggest you ascertain just how much of a fan they really are. You see, this cute little AR droid will set you back at least R2 800. We don’t know about you, but that’s way higher than our Christmas gift cap.
Even if that kind of money’s chump change for you, you’d want to make sure the person you’re buying it for gets more than a few hours’ entertainment out of it.
Verdict: The BB-8 is undeniably cute and technologically impressive, but if unless you’re a serious Star Wars fan or are prepared to let your imagination run wild, you’ll get limited enjoyment out of it. Cost, relative to that enjoyment factor, should be taken as a major consideration before purchase.
Our BB-8 by Sphero review unit was kindly provided by The Gadget Shop.