Boulder toy-robot maker Sphero has tapped its engineering force to bring to life the robot the world has loved for 40 years: R2-D2.
The iconic Star Wars droid plus new guy BB-9E were unveiled Thursday as part of Walt Disney’s Force Friday II, when the owner of the Star Wars franchise revealed the new toys for sale promoting the upcoming movie “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
The new black BB-9E droid, which looks similar to the Sphero’s first Star Wars robot BB-8, is a character in the upcoming movie that hits theaters in December. As before, Sphero’s team learned the essence of BB-9E’s personality but not much more.
“We get enough of the story so we can determine the personality. Good or evil? How should he be motivated?” said Paul Berberian, Sphero’s CEO, who was in New York awaiting the midnight opening of the Disney Store in Times Square.
This is important because BB-9E, like BB-8, has a “watch-with-me” feature, in which the robot sits next to its human during Star Wars movies and reacts to scenes.
“We have to understand the character more from a dimensional standpoint because these droids will watch the movie with you,” Berberian said. “With ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One,’ how is the droid supposed to act when they blow up the Death Star? We have to understand that so we can make him react appropriately.”
As for BB-9E’s personality? “Yes, he is not a good boy,” Berberian said. “But I don’t know a whole lot about the plot. Nobody (here) knows the whole plot. We’ll be just as excited as everyone else when the movie comes out.”
BB-9E will retail for $149, the same price as BB-8 originally sold for.
Disney, which participated in a $45 million investment round in Sphero in 2015, has continued to work with the Boulder company. Earlier this year, Sphero released a robotic race car, Lightning McQueen, from Disney’s Cars movies, and a Spider-Man robot from Disney’s Marvel Studios franchise.
But with R2-D2, Berberian said his team had to stretch its engineering chops. The team had to design off what they saw in the films, a droid that was more props and puppeteering, rather than an actual working robot.
“If you look at the vast majority of R2s sold, the toys never seemed to move like they do in the movie. We wanted it to really move authentically,” he said. “We had to do a lot of engineering so you could have the droid move appropriately and bring his leg over his body and move his head. That took a lot of engineering.”
Sphero also realized a life-sized R2-D2 would not work well at homes. So its version is a mere 6.7 inches tall. The $179 robot smoothly kicks out its third leg as it rolls along, moves its head like the “real” thing and chirps and burbles.
“I think people will buy it and say this looks like it just rolled off the movie,” Berberian said. “This is as authentic as it can get. The emotions, we have hundreds of unique sounds that they (Lucas Films) went deep into their archives to get. We have 55 unique animations that were taken scene by scene from the movie. His transition from two legs to three legs and back to two is the smoothest, most elegant that has been done. This is the toy people have been waiting for 40 years to get.”
In the Denver area, certain Target and Toys ‘R Us stores will open at midnight tonight to sell the new Sphero robots as well as other Star Wars merchandise. The robots also will be available starting Friday at Best Buy and Disney Store locations.
As with all Sphero robots, the new Star Wars droids work best with a mobile app and get software updates over time. Sphero also adds some learning and teaching capabilities allowing users to learn simple programming skills to get the robots to move and react.
The company has more than doubled its staff to 180 people since the first BB-8 launched two years ago. It also has expanded to Hong Kong and Europe. But most of the design and development is done in Boulder.
“This should be our biggest year yet. 2015 was a fantastic year and 2016 was solid. But this should be our biggest year yet,” Berberian said. “We still have a big secret to share at the end of the year.”