BB-8, very probably the world’s cutest droid, is already the breakout star of the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which comes out in December.
In an age of computer graphics, this little robot stands out for being a practical effect. In fact, at this weekend’s Star Wars Celebration, Lucasfilm and Sphero — the Boulder-based robotics startup that designed BB-8 for the movie — put him on stage with stars like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, and rolled him around, to the delight of the crowd.
The Internet has run rampant with BB-8 mania. If you tweet using the hashtag “#bb8,” Twitter will display a little emoji of the robot. Since Star Wars Celebration, hardware hackers the world over have been wondering just how the effect that makes BB-8 move like this works (the winning theory is “magnets”):
People have even been building their own BB-8 droids. Today, Sphero announced you’ll be able to buy your own BB-8 later this year, to much excitement from a Star Wars-crazed public.
For Sphero, working with Lucasfilm and Disney has led to a moment that most startups only ever dream about: The chance to be a part of mainstream culture.
“We’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to contribute to culture at a scale we never thought possible,” says Sphero Chief Creative Officer Rob Maigret.
BB-8 is a science-fiction, ideal version of what Sphero is all about, says Maigret: A friendly robot with a real personality that people are attached to.
The flagship Sphero robot is a tiny ball that you can program and control straight from your smartphone. It’s great for kids, Maigret says, because it’s a toy that introduces kids to the concept that all of the cool things in their own world run on software — software that they can learn how to write, too.
Sphero was founded in 2010, when co-founders Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson joined the TechStars Boulderstartup farm. Maigret describes them as “young robotics experts” with a “hacker background” who had a passion for building robotics and a ton of ideas.
Investor and TechStars mentor Brad Feld convinced them to focus on the robot ball concept, and they showed off the fruits of their labour at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. Today, Sphero 2.0 and a second robot, the treaded Ollie, are both available for purchase commercially.
Maigret describes Sphero’s simple robot ball as having a kind of “accidental magic” that makes people understand and love the concept at first glance.
It’s that kind of magic that made Sphero so appealing to Disney, Maigret says.
The two companies first crossed paths early last year, when Sphero joined Disney’s 2014 startup accelerator program, which gives companies $US120,000 in funding and a Disney mentor — in this case, no less than Disney CEO Bob Iger himself.
“He is an amazing innovator himself,” Maigret says of Iger.
At this point, Sphero was already making money, but the company was looking for guidance to take its toy to the next level.
This accelerator program is also where Maigret himself comes in. He joined Disney in 2008 as part of the acquisition of social media startup DigiSynd, a company he co-founded. And he was part of the Disney team supporting Sphero during the three-month accelerator program.
To Maigret, Sphero’s simple ball-shaped robots speak to something Disney is really good at: Storytelling.
“I believe that technology isn’t just a tool for utility, it’s a tool for great story,” Maigret says.
In the same way that Disneyland’s Tomorrowland isn’t meant to be an exact replica of the future, but rather made to demonstrate its vision of living in the future will feel, Maigret says, Sphero is one of the first signposts along the way towards smarter, more personal technology.
“You can see Disney has roots not in predicting the future, but designing the future,” Maigret says.
While Maigret couldn’t go into detail on their relationship and how it started, Sphero began working with Lucasfilm on the next Star Wars movie late last year, not long after the conclusion of the Disney accelerator program.
It was a worthwhile challenge to design a robot that fit right into the Star Wars universe, which has very strict guidelines for how things on screen can look and “feel,” Maigret says. That challenge goes double given that Sphero’s focus is on building robots, not special effects or designing props.
“We had the technology to bring that vision to life,” Maigret
Disney’s mission statement and promise is “Special entertainment with heart,” and Maigret says that extends to every aspect of Star Wars. Whatever they came up with had to be something special.
“When you work with Disney, you have to work with that promise,” Maigret says.
Those constraints generated a lot of creativity, resulting in the BB-8 that the world knows and loves.
And it’s helped hone Sphero’s vision on where they want the product to go over the next 10 years, as Star Wars-style droids move closer to reality.
Right now, even “smart” technologies are dumb, Maigret says. He cites the example of Apple’s Siri, who’s friendly to work with, but works the same for any two people. Siri doesn’t know or care who’s using it.
“That’s unacceptable in any friendship,” Maigret says.
As for how BB-8 actually works, and whether or not it uses magic, Maigret says that Sphero has to have some secrets before people buy their toys and bring them home to tear apart.
“The speculation is amazing,” Maigret says.