There has never been an R2-D2 toy quite like this.
Sphero, the company that helped bring the scene-stealing BB-8 to life in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and then delivered a tiny, but lively BB-8 robot toy, is breaking the traditional Sphero ball mold with a pitch-perfect 1:24 scale R2-D2 toy robot.
And it’s magnificent.
Not only did Sphero get every detail right — the colors, the lights, and sounds (directly from Lucas Film Archives’ original Star Wars: A New Hope recordings) — but Sphero’s R2-D2 app-enabled-droid moves like the real thing.
It is the first R2-D2 toy (and there have been many, including my favorite: the 1-foot-tall, voice-controlled R2-D2 by Hasbro) to automatically go from three legs, to two legs and back to three. Yes, the third leg extends and retracts into R2’s body just like it does on the real thing. It almost makes you wonder if there’s a tiny person inside the droid.
Like all of Sphero’s previous robots, R2-D2 works with a companion Star Wars DroidApp where you can remotely drive R2, separately control its head turns, draw routes, and activate animations — like the famous scene in which R2-D2 is shot by Jawas, freaks out, and then falls over. Yes, Sphero does the whole thing, including falling over. Sphero tells me the toy is designed to take the hit.
Sphero’s R2-D2 is just one of many toys and products releasing this Force Friday II, a merchandising event designed to celebrate all the news products releasing in anticipation of the new film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which hits theaters in December.
In fact, R2-D2 is not Sphero’s only new droid.
The company also introduced BB-9E, a brand-new character that will appear in the upcoming Star Wars film.
BB-9E is built on the same robotic platform as Sphero’s BB-8, but with some crucial differences. First, the colors are all black and gray (this a Dark Side droid). Secondly, and in a first for Sphero, the more sharply fashioned BB-9E head (it’s reminiscent of an R6 head), which turns just like the adorable head on BB-8, has a pair of LED lights. There’s no battery in the head or dome. In fact, it only attaches to the BB-9E base via magnets and draws power from the main ball via induction technology.
Inside the head are the lights, a coil, and a capacitor. As soon as the head is close to the BB-9E body, the LEDs light up.
Beyond that, the BB-9E will work very much like the original BB-8; rolling around the floor letting you steer it via the app or program in new routes (you draw them on a grid with your finger). In addition to the standard charging base, BB-9E ships with a cool new platform called the Droid Trainer. It looks like a platform for the droid but slides apart to reveal a scooped-out base. Once you place BB-9E on it, you run one of the augmented reality routines in the app and BB-9E will run in place while you watch its avatar tour an Empire (or would it be First Order?) ship on screen.
Sphero is also upgrading the BB-8 with its own Droid Trainer base.
Hands on with R2-D2 and BB-9E
Sphero’s R2-D2 app-enabled droid, which lists for $179.99, is not the largest R2 I’ve ever seen and it doesn’t even have voice control, but Sphero’s attention to detail takes it to another level.
The moment I saw the Sphero R2-D2, I was instantly reduced to my 12-year-old self. Aside from the head, legs and tread wheels, there aren’t any other moving parts, but the sculpting on the Astromech droid is exquisite. It’s clear Sphero worked closely with Star Wars parent, Disney, to make this R2-D2 look exactly right. Unlike other Sphero droids, this one does not have a charging base. Instead, the included, gold micro-USB cable plugs directly into R2 D2’s body.
Like Sphero’s impressive Ultimate Lightning McQueen robot toy before it, R2-D2 benefits from Sphero’s Robot Animator system, which lets them build complex animations and download them into the robot, using its four motors, body lights and audio to impressive effect. For example, the Sphero R2-D2 can waddle on two feet just like the R2-D2 in the original Star Wars film series. Most of these canned animations are triggered via the app.
The DroidApp, by the way, got an upgrade too, and can work with all of Sphero’s Star Wars droids. As soon as I launched the app, it detected the R2-D2, BB-9E, and my original BB-8 via Bluetooth. I could easily switch back and forth between controlling any of the three. As in previous versions, the App provides a running Star Wars soundtrack to accompany your droid activities.
Once connected, I rotated an onscreen R2-D2 until the real robot toy was facing away from me. This is an important step to ensure that the droid will go in the direction you expect it to. After that, I could use the redesigned drive screen to control the robot.
While R2-D2 waits for commands, it’ll make noises, blink its various LED lights, look around and raise and lower its third foot, and, well, sort of tap one of its other feet. As soon as I started driving, the third foot popped out, R2, leaned back and was ready to go. This action looks exactly as it does in all seven of the Star Wars films.
Sphero’s R2-D2 also sounds exactly like the original robot, which just proves that it pays to go to the source. Thanks to Lucas Archives Film Archives and Ben Burtt. There’s also an augmented reality experience where you can play the role of R2-D2 rolling through a semi-translucent version of the Millennium Falcon. Unfortunately, the real Sphero R2-D2 didn’t do anything while I was rolling around the virtual ship.
As for the evil and somewhat inscrutable BB-9E, its animations are very similar to BB-8, but the look and audio are darker. The body art is also sharper and shinier than the original BB-8 body. Sphero says its been perfecting their “spherical decorating skills.” BB-9E’s body is also semi translucent. When it charges, you can see a glowing purple core. Sphero admits that it doesn’t know much about BB-9E besides the look and that it’s a dark side character. The company plans to update the robot toy’s interactions, animations, and story when Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens.
As soon as I connected to BB-9E, it’s head lit up and it “looked” around (there are no cameras on these droids). On the app, the music changed to darker sounding March of the Resistance from the Force Awakens. In this case, the phone (iOS or Android) does double duty, playing both the soundtrack and all BB-9E’s sounds.
Before I could drive BB-9E, I had to make sure that a bright blue light emanating from inside the drone was facing me. Then I was good to go. Like R2, BB-9E has almost a dozen canned animations, but without the context of a story, I don’t know what any of them mean.
Thanks to the new Droid Trainer platform, BB-9E’s AR Mode was a more impressive experience than R2’s AR jaunt. I placed BB-9E in the trainer and launched the Supremacy experience, which took me aboard what looked like an Imperial Cruiser. As I moved my phone to look around and drove forward via the on-screen joystick, BB-9E rolled in the trainer base. This is kind of cool, but the sound of the ball bot rolling in that base is too loud and, to be honest, a little distracting. Now, I’m not sure that putting the real droid in this AR experience makes sense. Maybe others will like it more.
Right now the BB-9E and R2-D2 do not work with the company’s Force Band, which lets you control the BB-8 battle droid with gestures, but Sphero promises that they will by November.
Both R2-D2 and the new robot character, BB-9E ($149.99) can watch Star Wars movies with you and will react to their favorite parts (the app listens for the key moments and triggers the response on the robots). Right now, the robots can react to the action Force Awakens, Rogue One and A New Hope.
R2 D2, BB-9E, and BB-8 can also interact with each other, even without the app. The radios inside each bot act as proximity sensors and trigger a reaction in the robots. I didn’t have much luck getting this to work, but then I was running beta software.
The new R2-D2 App-Enabled Droid and the angry BB-9Es will also be added to Sphero’s EDU program in November, which means you’ll be able to program each robot with code.
Sphero R2-D2 and BB-9E go on store shelves on, naturally, Force Friday II (Sept. 1) at midnight.