• A special technology supplement to The Mattopia Times •
Sphero's R2-D2: Under the Dome (Part I)
Updated 22 January 2018
I'll admit it: I've become slightly obsessed with Sphero's droids.
A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Star Wars on the big screen has always been about breaking new ground. That's most obvious in terms of the overall theatrical experience, including special effects, sound design and even projection systems.
The series has also never shied away from strong female characters. Hello! Princess Leia is the ultimate leading lady. And, regardless of how one feels about Episodes I-III, Padmé Amidala is no shrinking violet. But Disney — particularly with the introduction of Rey and Jyn Erso — has elevated the stakes, along with its expanding galaxy of inclusion, broadening the palette with characters like Finn and Rose and Chirrut Imwe.
That's all great, but Star Wars off the screen is still a laggard when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). That's where Sphero comes in — and it's a beautifully natural fit, seamlessly executed.
2015 Was a Long Time Ago
As part of the ramp-up of the Star Wars marketing machinery in September 2015, months ahead of the December release of The Force Awakens, there was a huge global reveal of new toys and other Star Wars merchandise. Episode VII, after all, was the first new Star Wars movie in 10 years and people were starved for all things Jedi. Media coverage followed the sun as new products were unveiled in different territories around the world. When the sun rose on New York City (on Disney-owned ABC's Good Morning America, of course), the big reveal was Sphero's BB-8 and it quickly became the "it" toy. Dubbed "the best Star Wars toy ever" by many, it deserved a lot of the hype. But it had limitations. It was, ultimately, a repurposed and reprogrammed Sphero ball, now with a droid head on it — a head that often fell off, particularly after colliding with walls. It's a phenomenon that gets a wink when BB-8 loses his head in The Last Jedi.
Flash forward to 2017. Never mind BB-8. Sphero's R2-D2 is the droid you're looking for. Really.
Augmented Reality, Sorta
It's not really hardcore augmented reality in its current implementation, but Sphero's AR addition to the droids lineup is... interesting. Each droid offers a different "AR" experience. With R2, it's the Millennium Falcon. (For BB-8 to access the Raddus, the Droid Trainer is required — it's essentially a new charging base that's been added to the lineup.)
Here, I've navigated R2 to the cockpit of the Falcon.
At various key locations, detailed information about the ship is revealed.
This could be much more interesting if R2 moved around the floor — to scale — as the corridors of the ship are navigated on the iPad. In the truer sense, AR would entail enhancing the view of one's own environment with the surroundings of the Falcon, in this case. As it is, it's more of a mutt of virtual reality and augmented reality concepts.
It's cool. But it needs work to fulfill its potential.
And, while on this VR/AR topic, bring back the hologram option from the original BB-8 app!
Yes, the functionality needs a little fine-tuning; it's awkward to playback holograms and generate the desired fantasy effect. Nonetheless, that feature is so obviously, painfully relevant for a droid like R2-D2. Replicating the classic message from Princess Leia? C'mon. No-brainer. (But it'll take a little more brain power to execute it properly.)
Somewhere along the way, my own personally-recorded messages — created shortly after BB-8's introduction — disappeared. At least the stock messages — featuring clips of dialogue from the movies — are still there.
R2-D2, Where Are You?!
Sure, there's all kinds of goodness on tap overall, but there's still room to point out a couple more disappointments (or, as we say in the biz, "opportunities"). A couple features from the original BB-8 launch are no longer being promoted. One of them's the aforementioned hologram.
BB-8's "adaptive personality" angle has also been dumped; I never really picked up on that one as being legitimate. It seemed more like vaporware, so it's not really missed.
On the other hand, a significant feature that needs to be brought back is voice control. This one's still available in the original BB-8-exclusive app and it's a shame it wasn't carried over and further built out for use with R2-D2. It'd be perfect: "R2-D2, where are you?"
One other — minor — feature also appears to have gone missing. The original BB-8 patrol mode included a motion map with fantasy obstacles — such as a hostile stormtrooper — causing BB-8 to alter his course. Sigh. That no longer seems to be the case as the droids roam around, bump into stuff and typically need help understanding moving away from the wall is a better response rather than trying to move the wall.
But this performance limitation is actually a proof point to all of the above documented features: The best of what Sphero's droids offer isn't necessarily in the Droids app itself — it's in the completely customizable actions available through the Playgrounds and Edu apps.
Movie Watch Party
The Movie Watch Party mode, added in conjunction with the home video release of The Force Awakens, now includes character intro alerts within the app along with the full lineup of droids reacting to on-screen action. Right now, it works with Episodes IV through VII and Rogue One. Eventually, Episodes I-III will be included, but there's no rush to revisit those movies.
Overall, the Watch Party is a gimmick, and a glitchy one at that. For example, Rogue One has a glaring boo-boo: When Darth Vader first appears, an alert pops up about R2-D2 and C-3PO. Oops. More annoying, though, is how the heads of the droids keep moving — ultimately looking away from the screen, no matter how they're positioned in relation to the screen. It's especially problematic with BB-8. I think a little Yoda — I mean yoga — update is necessary, bringing the droids "back to center" after each emotive reaction.
On the plus side, R2 units' ability for more dynamic movement makes their reactions more fun to watch.
And there's also a syncing issue. The app goes into and falls out of sync with the movies, sometimes falling out of sync for quite a while while it tries to find its spot again. A little annoying.
A recent app update added a new option: interactions independent of the app. The app can be set to either "Human" or "Droid" — or turned off. Once the on-screen instructions are followed, the droids then autonomously interact with each other — sporadically — for about 15 minutes before going into sleep mode. It's a cute little feature that also allows a similar autonomous interaction with human motions and touch.
One thing that briefly made me do a double-take was the projection of BB-8's sounds. Given his sound has always come from the app since there's no sound support within the droid's body, I was tickled to hear BB-8 "speak" independent of the app. Upon closer inspection, R2's pulling a ventriloquist act and he's basically "throwing" BB-8's voice. It's a very clever play on how the mind fills in the gaps while it interprets reality.
And Now... The Really Cool Stuff
Learn about coding R2-D2 to do your bidding!