Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sphero BB-8 Unboxing and First Look Review

Is this the droid you've been looking for?

In keeping with Internet tradition, the first video on the new Watkins Robotics YouTube channel is an unboxing video which includes that other ubiquitous Internet staple, a cat.

The star of this product review and video is none other than the Sphero BB-8 Astromech Droid collectible from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The cat, however, is not the star and appears only as a product demonstrator.

There are many consumer versions of the BB-8 in existence. At least one version is inflatable which seems appropriate since BB-8 has been referred to as "the beach ball" of astromech droids. For me, the Sphero version is the most interesting and arguably the most solidly built. It is, however, probably the smallest; coming in at roughly four and a half inches in height.

The Hasbro model, while larger, has a more "toy like" feel to it. Meanwhile, the Sphero appears to be the more "high tech" option.

One thing, however, that the Hasbro model has over the Sphero is that it comes with a dedicated remote control which is a welcome addition compared to the Sphero's requirement that a smart phone application act as the remote control.

While leveraging cellphone technology does allow for automatic updates and future expansion of the BB-8 feature set, it seems that a collectible droid model of this quality should really be more self-contained. Cellphones are upgraded often and it seems that the usability of the Sphero should not rely on the type of cellphone a person owns...or whether they own a cellphone at all.

Another compromise with the Sphero model is that the sounds made by BB-8 come from the cellphone application rather than from the droid itself. Since the user will always have the cellphone in hand (or at least nearby), this little shortcoming doesn't end up being as noticeable as one might initially believe.

The Hasbro model generates its sound from within the BB-8 which tends to produce a more realistic experience. This might be more important if the BB-8 is purchased as entertainment for children. Under this scenario, there will often be a parent or another child controlling the BB-8 and having the sounds come from the model, itself, will seem more immersive to the users.

In any case, the Sphero model is the choice for me. The construction is solid, the movement is precise, and the programmers have captured the personality and spirit of the character from the movie. This unit is solid enough to bang into walls and even drop from heights without causing too much grief.

And, yes, it has been known to bounce down a few stairs without much concern. Normally, if BB-8 drops down some stairs or otherwise experiences a hard crash, it usually first loses its head and this lightweight piece lands safely off to the side. This leaves the very solid billiard ball of a body to bounce and tumble as much as the laws of physics may compel.

By Constant314 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Another neat feature which should be mentioned is that the Sphero BB-8 uses a wireless charging technique involving the use of a pair of inductive coils; one inside the charging base and one inside the BB-8 itself. These coils act much like a typical electrical transformer which also conducts energy via alternating electromagnetic fields. I really appreciate the inclusion of such technology into this intriguing little device.

The original Sphero "robot ball" was something I had been watching ever since its inception. It was the first commercially available "robot" to use a locomotion technique about which I had been pondering for a quite a while.

It just seemed to make a lot of sense that a robot without wheels would be able to navigate some terrains much more easily than a robot with traditional wheels or rollers. And, of course, creating a robot with actual legs is still quite a challenge.

By Nepenthes (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
I'd often wondered just how R2-D2 could have managed to travel through the sand and rocks of Tatooine on those stiff little legs with their embedded rollers. Roller skates do not move well on the beach. A beach ball on the other hand is made for the beach and can easily roll across the sand. To me, the whole idea of a beach ball shaped droid rolling through the desert just seemed brilliant.

I had been interested in getting one of the original Spheros but it was not until this version that I decided to make a purchase. This is not simply because it is a wonderful Star Wars based collectible. Rather, the inclusion of something reminiscent of a face somehow gives it a little more life and makes it infinitely more interesting than what otherwise would resemble a common billiard ball. There's probably some well established psychological theory standing behind this feeling.

I hope you get a chance to check out the BB-8 Unboxing and First Look video on YouTube. Please feel free to share it with friends and remember to subscribe for updates on future content.

Thank you for visiting The Watkins Robotics Blog. Keep coming back!

--Watkins Robotics

Sphero BB-8 -
WatkinsRobotics YouTube Channel -

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