Toy joy

October 04, 2015

I do not shop much. I consider myself pretty resistant to the lure of gadgets and things I have little use for. I think before I buy, and I often think myself out of buying altogether.

When the feeling is right and I do buy, however, I can splurge shamelessly.


Say hello to BB-8 Say hello to BB-8

This is Sphero's BB-8 "app-enabled droid". I do not remember when I was last so purely and childishly enamoured by a thing.

Basically, BB-8 is a very fancy remote-controlled car with an app acting as the remote control.

This is completely true. But BB-8 is also a lot greater than the sum of its parts. It is such a complete experience. BB-8 comes out of the luxurious box and onto its charging station, where it wakes up and starts to look around as it charges. The box contains no manuals, just an illustrated initial setup and the URL to get the app. The app contains all the few instrucions you need, and it is at once instructive, easy to use and extremely good-looking. Every pixel and sound effect oozes Star wars, every element is custom built and there are animations everywhere. When I first launched the app and connected it to BB-8, there was a firmware update to install. Not since the original Command & conquer have I enjoyed an installer so much. It ran quickly and beeped, booped, printed interesting text and glyphs and generally behaved like all installers do in a more fun galaxy.

At this point I had already been smiling widely for a couple of minutes. Things did not go downhill once I set BB-8 down on the floor. The fact that a ball-shaped thing like BB-8 stays still when you set it down is kind of magical in itself, and even more so when it balances its head on top. Then you start driving and realize two things, in no particular order:

Where Pleo tried to be a great deal and enable even more things, BB-8 does a fantastic job of working with its limitations. Its whimsical "personality" fits great with the way it moves and behaves. It is a fun droid, surprised by the world, not a smart AI which you would expect to negotiate obstacles and interact deeply. Within the stark confines of being a simple sphere with very limited sensors, it does a fantastic job of projecting personality, playfulness and the kind of intelligence and understanding you tend to project onto pets.

The head of BB-8 is kept in place by a magnet and rolls on little wheels. The wheels also collect dust, in a way familiar to those of us who lived in the times of ball-based mice.

Your floors are not clean. Embrace it. Your floors are not clean. Embrace it.

If you do not feel like driving, it is quite fun to set BB-8 off in patrol mode and sit back while it rolls around the room, beeping cheerfully, getting stuck on cables and bumping into things. You do have to keep the app running, so no idle tweeting on the phone while BB-8 is on patrol.

Battery life is stated as an hour and that seems true to me. Battery on my retina Ipad mini was drained pretty efficiently while playing as well, so it appreciated a break too. I wonder if some kind of quick charging could be created, for impatient kids the stated three hours to full charge seems kind of steep. On the other hand, you probably get a useful amount of playtime much quicker, and I would not be suprised if the average active session is rather shorter. Plus, it is so easy to just pop BB-8 onto its charging … cradle? … podium? … platform? … whenever it is not in active use.


Yes indeed. BB-8 is such a great toy, kind of like a really great casual game projected out into the physical world. If Tapbots made physical objects, they would look and work as delightfully as this.

… I fetched BB-8, put it next to the computer and got lost for a few minutes just driving it slowly around the table. For precision work like this, you can adjust maximum speed with an in-app slider. Naturally, it still fell off the table once, but like all good toys it seems very solidly built.

It is easy to think "I wish we had toys like this when I was growing up!" But really, it is pretty darn nice to get the toys as an adult too. I would never have been able to buy this as a kid, for starters.

And there is more!

As I read up on BB-8, I realized that Sphero's other devices are quite programmable. Through their support systems, I learned both that people are expressing annoyance at BB-8 not being as open to hacking as its siblings, and that there are options which work. I discovered a very intriguing Ipad app called Tickle which lets you visually program not only BB-8 but a whole universe of various droids, drones and other connected devices. Not only did my dreams of developing on an Ipad take a nice step closer to reality, this is visual development straight to physical devices. And built with learning in mind too.

There is a whole galaxy of possibilities out there!

BB-8 in its cradle checking out the view BB-8 in its cradle checking out the view