Like millions of Star Wars fans worldwide, John Blakely will be rushing out to the movie theater in the next 24 hours to catch The Force Awakens. Unlike the others, though, he’ll be on the clock for work.
Without once seeing the film, Blakely led the team that produced the hardware, software, and user experience for Sphero’s app-controlled BB-8 toy—destined to be one of the top-selling gifts for children this holiday season. And so, he’ll have his eye trained on the heroic droid throughout the screening, searching for ways to make the product even better.
That’s one of the big benefits of living in an age of connected products. Because Sphero’s BB-8 is controlled by an app that you download onto a smartphone or tablet, it can be upgraded via software updates. In fact, Sphero has already fixed a few bugs and added movie-related content—info on the on-screen characters and vehicles—through the toy’s hologram messaging system. And in the next few days, the company will offer a fresh update with sounds and animations pulled straight from the film.
“We wanted to make it feel as if the droid rolled off the screen and into your home,” says Blakely.
That means there will be more surprises to come in the weeks ahead. “We’re going to be continually updating,” Blakely says. “Adding some new things you can do with BB-8. I’m not at liberty to talk about that, but we are definitely working on those things right now.”
When the toy was unveiled in September, it was greeted with glowing reviews. Gizmodo called it “the coolest Star Wars toy ever.” And it certainly lived up to the advanced billing: When we invited children to our office earlier this month to try out tech toys, they were immediately drawn to it. For Blakely and Spheros, that’s no small victory—given the challenges they faced in designing the toy.
They earned the opportunity with a stroke of great fortune. In July 2014, the company’s founders—Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson—were working on the fledgling firm in a business startup program when they were granted a brief audience with Disney CEO Robert Iger. After learning of their expertise in robotics, Iger pulled an iPhone from his pocket and showed them a still image of BB-8. “Can you make one of these?” he asked.
By chance, Bernstein and Wilson had been toying around with a ball-shaped droid. They had even begun to explore techniques for attaching things—like, say, BB-8’s floating head—to the ball. Within 24 hours, to Iger’s delight, they had ginned up a working prototype.
Bringing BB-8 to Life
That was only the first challenge. Converting the prototype into a convincing-looking BB-8 took far longer. Sphero was given a brief character bio, some input on the droid’s decoration and markings, and a few prop shots that demonstrated how the creature moved—details that were eventually unveiled in the film’s trailer. For everything else, Blakely’s team had to play detective. He compares the experience to a game of 20 Questions with the movie’s creators at Lucasfilm.
“We assembled a huge document of questions that were instrumental in helping us determine what kind of experience to create,” he explains. Often the answer was a simple yes or no. At other times, the Sphero crew might be referred to other parts of the Star Wars cannon. “Sometimes they’d say we don’t know the answer to that or we’re not at liberty to give you the information,” Blakely adds.
In the end, Sphero created a toy that looks and moves just like the on-screen character. Using the app, the team added chirps and beeps and other details that reflect its personality. And now, with updates, they hope to add another layer of verisimilitude.
Blakely offers up one example. In the Drive feature on the app, there’s a function called the Droid Translator, which lets you role play with your droid. In the months since the launch, Sphero has added ways to not only make the toy execute a figure eight, but also make it seem scared, exasperated, or angry.
“It allows people to create little videos,” says Blakely. “To act out scenes or respond to things in the world.”
And that in turn makes BB-8 the rare toy that improves with age.
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