Sphero has been making interactive, app-enabled gadgets for a few years now — or as I like to refer to them: luxury cat toys for spoiled feline in your life.
With the next Star Wars film teetering on the brink of completion, Sphero has unleashed its latest droid-themed gadget in the form of BB-8. But is this droid you’ve been looking for all along?
Sphero Meets Star Wars
Sphero’s latest interactive toy is a lot like their last (and the one before that). In essence it’s an interactive plastic ball full of sensors and magnets, which you control with your smartphone or tablet. BB-8 is also capable of recording messages and patrolling your floors independent of you.
For your $150 you’ll get a round Sphero unit sporting a fetching Star Wars paint job; a small magnetic head, which clips onto BB-8; a charging stand and the usual USB cable. BB-8 uses inductive charging, delivering a full hour of playtime on a single charge. Compared to mini drones and remote control cars (which hover around the 10-15 minute mark), that’s pretty impressive.
What makes BB-8 different to a regular Sphero? Not a lot. The unit is based on a droid from the upcoming film, complete with R2-D2-esque flashing red, white and blue LEDs (but no speaker, and thus no beep-boop noises). The iOS or Android app you will inevitably use to interact with the unit blares Star Wars music at you whenever you start it up (dare I say it’s grating by now?), and as previously mentioned this is the first Sphero with a magnetic, clip-on “head” — predominantly for aesthetic reasons.
Once you’ve unpacked BB-8 from the unnecessarily large box and placed it on the charging stand for a few hours, you’re able to control your new droid using apps you’ll find on the App Store and Google Play. Movement is a twin-stick kind of affair, with one used to move BB-8 and the other used to aim, with the aid of an aiming light.
You can also record your own “save us Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope!” style holographic messages, which are viewable on other smartphones with the help of augmented reality. Lastly, BB-8 can be left to its own devices to explore the environment with the aid of on-board sensors.
Getting to Know BB-8
Controlling BB-8 with your smartphone can take a little getting used to, but there’s no denying it’s a lot of fun. An aiming light appears directly behind the direction BB-8 is “facing” which makes pointing the unit in the right direction a relatively painless affair — especially as the snap-on head also looks “forwards” too.
Even when you’ve worked out how the aiming light fits into the whole equation, manoeuvring the droid can still take some practice. Different surfaces provide varying degrees of resistance, but there’s no denying the unit just as capable on carpet as it is on floorboards, lino and tiling.
When remote-controlling BB-8 you’ve got about 30 metres of slack before the connection will drop, but due to the lack of a camera or other means of tracking beyond your eyesight, you probably won’t use more than about 10 metres. Despite being surrounded by Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth speakers and wireless controllers I had no problems communicating with BB-8 once the Bluetooth connection had been made.
Like other Sphero toys, BB-8 is also capable of patrolling independently too. A dedicated patrol mode can be accessed via the map, but BB-8 also seems to “revert” to patrol mode when activated without the presence of a smartphone. The droid uses information from on-board sensors to make its way around your house, and despite managing to get stuck behind my fridge (an impressive feat), BB-8 probably has better navigation skills than most robotic vaccuums.
That comparison may not be fair — BB-8 tends to just bump into things in order to work out where to go. For that reason you’ll probably want to “droid-proof” the room beforehand, though the unit has a waterproof body you may not want to find a droid swimming in your cat bowl. You’ll also have to be careful if playing on counters and tabletops, particularly in patrol mode, as BB-8 may decide to end it all and jump.
The unit can also record “holographic” messages, viewable using the app’s AR-enabled viewfinder. To be honest I find AR a bit old and boring now, and though I didn’t expect real holograms on my living room floor, it would be nice if he could carry and play audio messages at the least. The unit is also able to respond to your voice, though in loud environments this feature is useless (and that might be why it’s disabled in the app by default). He’ll gravitate toward sound sources when the feature is on, which includes speakers and other people in the room who are also talking.
A Star Wars Cat Toy?
Confession time: I’ve genuinely been looking for “smart” cat toys for a while — essentially a remote control ball or unit that’s hardy enough to take a knock. My first thought when I saw BB-8 was: “I haven’t spent $150 on a cat toy before!”
This Sphero unit is pretty much exactly what I’ve been looking for in terms of cat entertainment:
- It can be remote controlled by you, or left to its own devices — both of which my cat found intriguing.
- It’s relatively hardy (according to Sphero) and waterproof.
- BB-8 is fully rechargeable, with a playtime that puts my cat’s attention span to shame.
- The motors are relatively quiet in operation, which is good if your cat is scared of everything (like mine is).
While my (nervous and hesitant) rescue cat approached BB-8 with caution, I’m confident most cats would chase the remote controllable ball all over the house. Playtime frequently results in BB-8’s head coming off, but the unit can be controlled just fine without it (previous Sphero units were just a ball).
While controlling the unit there are a few one-touch actions that can be triggered, including positive and negative expressions (nods and shakes of the head), a figure-eight, and charging forward — all of which are fun to experiment with.
Sure, $150 is a lot for a cat toy, but really this is just another use for your Sphero — the primary purpose is to entertain, and I’m delighted to report that his charm isn’t only limited to human beings.
My experience with BB-8 hasn’t entirely been plain sailing, particularly when I first tried to connect the unit to my iPhone 6. The required app simply wouldn’t see the unit, and I had to restart my phone and experiment taking BB-8 on and off the dock until it finally connected.
BB-8 will need to be reconnected every time the app falls out of memory, which can be a pain when pairing spontaneously fails for seemingly no good reason. You don’t necessarily need the base station to wake the unit every time, but occasionally I had to resort to docking and hitting the pair button on the side of the charging cradle in order to pair the two.
One thing that BB-8 doesn’t offer, that other Sphero models do include, is programmability. If there’s one reason to spend the extra $50 on a Sphero 2.0, it’s for this educational and interactive value
One other drawback is BB-8’s head. This part is little more than a piece of plastic with a magnet inside it, and some rollers on the underside allow the unit to move properly. Regardless of whether you have a cat or not, these rollers will get clogged up with hair, dirt and carpet fluff. Similarly, the charging unit has a band of grippy rubber that stops BB-8 running away from the charger, which also attracts grime like a magnet.
It’s worth noting that these are relatively minor points, and it’s possible the connectivity issues can be entirely resolved with firmware or app updates. BB-8 is capable of downloading new firmware via the companion app, and I noticed less spontaneous pairing failures after the first update had been applied.
Charming, Fun & Expensive
Sphero’s BB-8 is one of the smartest and most technically impressive toys on the market today, and it’s undoubtedly a lot of fun to play with. Virtually anyone can have a go, and though it may take some time to get used to the control scheme, the unit is suitable for all ages — from young children who are too young to remember the prequels, to seasoned fans still desperately trying to forget.
Connectivity issues and price tag aside (you’ll need to decide whether $150 for a Star Wars-branded ball you can control with your smartphone is worth it), BB-8 is one of the better app-enabled gadgets you can spend your money on, especially if you have a feline at home with which to share the fun.
Star Wars nerds and cat lovers will love BB-8, but casual fans of the franchise may want to opt for one of Sphero’s other toys instead.
Send your products to be reviewed. Contact James Bruce for further details.