April 18, 2015 – As soon as the rolypoly BB-8 bot rolled onto stage at the Anaheim Convention Center two days ago, thousands of mouths fell open in awe and wonder. The Internet and social media lit up with the same question: “How did they do it … How did they build BB-8?”
Before we delve deeper into the technological mystery of the orange-and-white free-wheeling ball, there are a few points worth mentioning:
1) Director J.J. Abrams made it clear before the first scene of Episode VII was ever filmed, that he would be jettisoning the overreliance on CGI which had plagued the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). In order to return to the grittiness and realism of the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Abrams’ vision insists that props, vehicles and sets be constructed physically. So while CGI could have easily brought BB-8 to life on screen, the crew had to find another way.
2) The “other way” meant promoting new technology (or a creative application of current technologies) to allow BB-8’s omnidirectional body and the “floating” head to work in unison.
3) Producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy announced at the stage presentation on April 16th that much of the credit for bringing BB-8 to life had to be given to Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger. Iger, by the way, was sitting with the audience in the front row of the auditorium. His contribution was to discover a small Boulder, Colorado-based company, which we now know is named Sphero (website: gosphero.com). The start-up company markets itself as a “connected play company, fusing digital and physical play by creating toys and robots that you control with a smart device.”
4) The Walt Disney Company has long been an innovater and supporter of technology. In the field of robotics, Walt Disney Imagineering pioneered its “audio-animatronics” in the early 1960’s, introducing talking birds (recall The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and Disney World) and developing moving, speaking bots (think of the Hall of Presidents or Pirates of the Caribbean). Therefore, it is no surprise that Disney awarded $120,000 in investment capital to Sphero as part of Disney’s accelerator program to encourage developments in “media and entertainment”.
5) The race is now on by hobbyists, amateur tinkerers and toy companies to develop BB-8 replicas. The big challenge is going to be figuring out the technology.
So How’d They Build It?
Depending on whom you ask and their state of inebriation, the answer(s) to unraveling BB-8’s technological mysteries involve one or more of the following:
A) “I don’t know, but it’s so cool! Where can I buy one?” (see below)
B) Magical unicorns
C) Lazy man’s approach to building your own ball droid (also called “I’ll just fake it”). Watch this video and see:
or (D) Several thoughtful, analytical sites such as mashable.com and makezine.com, among others, theorize that the main body is an omnidirectional or holonomic robot trapped in a ball and that the smaller head is an independent ball-balancing bot. The main body is a self-contained robot ball which could communicate via Bluetooth with a smartphone app. That technology already exists.
The trickier part to solve is the dome-shaped cap. One guess is magnetic levitation, but the lower body is so fluid and free-wheeling that “magnets” is not a very satisfying answer. Another possibility is the use of gyroscopes (for balance and to indicate which way is up) and accelerometers to detect motion. Rapidly moving magnetic wheels beneath the cap would keep the head in proper position at or near the top.
“But I Only Have 22 Euros”
If the technology is too daunting and you don’t need a life-sized, fully functioning, armed and operational BB-8 droid, you could instead order a BB-8 resin kit from Asis Film Models. This limited edition (200) offer includes an unpainted and unassembled set measuring approximately 60mm (about 2.4 inches). The cost is 22€ (about U.S. $23.77 at today’s exchange rate). Keep in mind the set is unpainted and unassembled.
There are many other questions we’d like to ask, such as: “What does BB-8 sound like?”; “Does it play any significant role in Episode VII, or will it be just another cute Ewok-like distraction?”; “Will these be mass produced in time for Christmas, 2015, or will we have to mail away for an Early Bird Certificate?” and “W.W.H.D.? (What would Hasbro do?)”
Stay tuned for further developments.