Machine Design
What's Inside Two Different Star Wars BB-8 Droids?

What's Inside Two Different Star Wars BB-8 Droids?

There has been an awakening… in the awesomeness of Star Wars toys.

Have you felt it? The need to get the BB-8 controllable Droid toy?

The dark side… Hasbro’s RC BB-8.

And the light… Sphero’s app enabled BB-8.

“Force Friday,” September 4th, brought a huge collection of new Star Wars toys. In it, this year’s hottest toy… the BB-8 controllable Droid. I was first in line for new Star Wars gear that evening (early morning, depending on perspective). Being first for the new-hotness is a new experience to me, I loved it. Not a single item denied. No rush, no fingers crossed, it was all there. Among all the items, the two BB-8 toys were absolute buys. I want to go over each toy completely, inside and out. Both are outside the box engineering, in my opinion. 

The two toys have one aspect in common; they are both remote controlled ball toys with the Droid “head” held on with magnets. It ends there…

Hasbro

The Hasbro version, coming in at $60, feels like most plastic toys in the toy aisle. Despite initial impressions, it works quite well. About the size of a grapefruit, 5 in. in diameter, there are two hemispheres that house the beefy drive system. Assembly was required, but I appreciated that. The drive system has two magnets on the top, used to stabilize its position inside the ball shell and held the head on top. The head has a slick surface with three embedded spring-loaded plastic nubs, acting as bearings, that slides around the surface of the ball. (Ball bearings would have been a better idea).

The Hasbro BB-8 is controlled with an infrared remote control pad, it has a forward and back with a spin left and right. Interestingly, the IR detector is inside the ball on the main drive unit. The signal from the controller gets to the detector through the dozens of holes around the balls surface. Not a single orientation that didn’t have a hole or two.

When the controller’s up and turn are held in unison, the ball can turn left and right while moving. The head does stay in place, until you hit an object at higher speeds. It makes sounds whenever it can, and the sound comes from inside the ball. When not playing with it, it will turn left, right and makes sounds for about five minutes before going into sleep mode. It can be put into sleep mode by holding it upside down for two seconds.

Four AA batteries drive the ball, and two AAAs are in the remote. I recommend rechargeable, since it’s a fun toy, it eats through the power.

The Hasbro BB-8 is simple, and I sort of like it. I would have liked the driving mechanisms in the Hasbro one made of a softer material, then it wouldn’t sound so loud.

Sphero

The Sphero version is a dense little package, if a little too high-tech. The $150 USD price tag confirms its density. The box alone is a step up over its “clone” (no pun intended). Like something housing the highest-of-end gadgets, it slides open – slowly – due to the suction of precision box housing. Somehow, that implies class. Inside, the Sphero BB-8 is shining like a brand-new billiards ball, at 2.85 in. diameter, about the size of one, and its surface feels like one too. The plastic shell is smooth with almost no defects. The droid head’s bottom is covered in a plastic protective sheet.  The head has two small wheels and two raise plastic pads acting as bearings to glide of the surface of the shell. Inside is a typical Sphero drive system with an additional magnet bracket on top for holding the head on.

The Sphero BB-8 is controlled via a smartphone, android or iOS. After the sizable app downloads, updates the firmware on the toy, and resets a few times, you’re in. All sounds, unfortunately, come from the user’s smartphone. The app has several categories for control: Drive, Message, Patrol, and settings.

Drive is like an RC control. However, it differs by having the user set a perspective point for BB-8. After lining it up, the directional pad is in reference to the user’s view point, not the direction of the toy’s head. Drive also features eight gestures at launch; saying yes, no, sprinting away, alert sounds, moving in a square, and a figure eight, talking, and an alarmed bot sequence. I would expect more features to be added to Drive in future app updates.

Message is for seeing Augmented Reality “hologram” messages displaying from BB-8 when using the phone’s camera. Users can also record their own messages.

Patrol is for an autonomous mode. It drives around detecting objects, pretending to scan the area, etc. I like this mode most, since it is fun just to watch this BB-8 do something without my intervention. I suppose that was the draw of Furbies. (Coincidentally, there is a Star Wars Furbie called a “Furbacca,” a Chewbacca-themed Furbie.) Supposedly, the BB-8 will develop a personality over time in autonomous mode. Currently, its personality just wants to get stuck under furniture. This BB-8 is also voice-responsive, although I didn’t explore this option.

Sphero’s BB-8 runs off of a lithium battery pack inside the ball. It’s recharged wirelessly between the charger base and a coil inside the ball – at the bottom of the drive system.

The Sphero BB-8 is like magic. In autonomous mode, it almost feels like it is a real droid. The package says that the personality will evolve, and I want it to. I want it to be real… or maybe I just want to see the movie in December.

Conclusion

Here are my observations. When using the Sphero BB-8, kids and adults asked… okay, so what else can it do? And it’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be! All this tech and it still isn’t enough? I think the Sphero toy is a true fan must-have. It’s interesting to interact with, and it is fairly movie accurate. Sphero did co-create the “real” movie BB-8. However, like everyone else, I look forward to new features. I would imagine as the movie get closer, there will be many more.

For some reason, I like the Hasbro one. I like the size more, sounds come from the toy itself, and it is designed to be taken apart completely. In comparison, I literally had to cut the Sphero BB-8 open to see what is inside (that sacrifice hurt, by the way). The Hasbro one has potential, and I would imagine it will be a useful platform for makers/hackers in the near future. I am already thinking, can I put it inside my “Pi Ball” project – maybe combine it with a Raspberry Pi. There is plenty of space inside the Hasbro BB-8, and that space is pure “imagination.” The internal drive system looks like it could be easily scaled up to the size of the “Real” BB-8, about basketball sized. Just thinking out loud… in typed words.

In the end, I think the Hasbro version is overpriced by $20 USD, and the premium Sphero one needs more options.

Oh yeah.. don’t cut open your Sphero BB-8!

 

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