UNBOXED: How the makers of the hit BB-8 robot brought Ultimate Lightning McQueen to life

Lightning McQueen is alive, and in my living room:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

It’s not the first Lightning McQueen toy spawned from the $US1 billion Pixar film franchise, but it is the first Ultimate Lightning McQueen.

Right now, I hate it.

Mainly because feeling the cold cardboard box beneath is about as sentient as it gets, and I’m painfully aware that I’m possibly the only person in the world feeling the frustration of not being able to be Ultimate Lightning McQueen’s best buddy.

I made a huge mistake. I wanted to let my kids do the unboxing and hopefully get some hilair footage of them fighting and figuring it all out. Blissfully naive, I sat back through a Google Hangout with its creators and let them me show me an amazing array of Ultimate Lightning McQueen’s tricks, which they did.

Of course, I didn’t get footage, because I was preparing my own shoot. My Ultimate Lightning McQueen was hidden in the wardrobe, waiting for me to fire up the beta version of the app which would be with me any day now.

It arrived while they were at school and I was alone with the whole house to tool around with it in. Ace. Until this fresh horror dawned on me:

I don’t have an iOS device anywhere near me. I don’t work in an office, or even a city.

The only thing close is my mother’s iPad 2, 15 minutes up the road, which doesn’t have the Bluetooth support I need.

In fact, I can think of only one friend practically near me enough to lend me his iPhone for a day or two, and he’s a doctor who really won’t lend me his iPhone, because he needs it to save lives with. This is actually something quite incredible which wouldn’t have happened two years ago, and worth a closer look at in another post sometime soon.

But for now, the entertainment potential of three boys fighting over a very pricey and seemingly fragile piece of high-tech toy will have to wait a couple of weeks until the Android app is released. Fortunately, its makers, Sphero, kindly gave me enough footage and time with their chief scientist Adam Wilson and product manager Jenica Watts to show how Sphero brought McQueen to some kind of incredible life.

(UPDATE: Sphero rolled out the Android app yesterday, a couple of weeks earlier than planned, and we’re happy to confirm that Ultimate Lightning McQueen is every bit as awesome fun as Wilson and Watts showed us it was.)

It’s been a rapid rise for Sphero

It started in 2010 when Wilson and Ian Bernstein hit on the idea for smartphone controlled robots and developed that idea into a robotic ball. It got all the attention it needed at CES 2011 and a product was born – Sphero:

Engadget said it was fun, but tough to get it to do what you want and it was perhaps best to “let a cat play with this thing“.

Rolling along nicely

“Faster, brighter” Sphero 2.0 was revealed at CES 2013, and a prototype cylindrical version soon to be know commercially as “Ollie” launched a year later which could go faster and jump higher:

Opportunity knocks

The rocket came in the form of the Disney Accelerator Program. It just so happened that Sphero was virtually a ready made template for the hottest character in the biggest movie of the year – The Force Awakens.

Toy of the year

Of course the BB-8 robot sold a million units almost immediately. You simply can’t buy red carpet publicity like this:

Picture: Getty Images

Scale up

The success of BB-8 has presented a nice problem to have for Sphero. Suddenly making the coolest toys on the planet meant being offered irresistible deals to make the coolest toys on the planet for someone else. Sphero’s creators had to shelve their own big ideas for the next 17 months.

While they worked on this:

Meet Ultimate Lightning McQueen. Kerchow.

The first thing you notice is how heavy McQueen is. Kids, according to Watts, were a key component of the build process, involved from the moment they had a “pretty high-functioning” prototype that could do most of the things slated for the final product. That includes trying to break it.

But first, you have to pair it which is just a matter of installing the app (gah), putting McQueen on charge, and opening the app.

Ultimate Lightning McQueen is alive. And obviously the first thing you’ll want to do it drive him, and of course you’re going to crash him straight away.

“He doesn’t have the smarts to quite avoid collisions but you’ll notice he’s a pretty heavy car, it weighs about as much as a brick,” she says. “He’s really durable because we know that the first thing that happens to our robots in the real world is that they get driven into a chair, or down the stairs.

“Everything is super reinforced, kids can push it along the ground and the motors will be fine.”

That mouth

This is not an animation:

Watts and Wilson triggered a bunch of unique lines to prove it, from his library of around 300 and growing.

“That’s one of those places where we didn’t cut any corners,” Watts said.

“Potentially, we could have. Having an animatronic mouth isn’t easy and knowing that was the thing that was going to get run into right away, we tried to make it as durable as possible.

“None of these things were easy but we were determined not to take any shortcuts when it came to capturing the character.”

It’s just the start of a long, brilliant process of learning just how much a toy can engage with a human. First, let’s run through the technical details.

You’ve probably guessed this is a Cars 3 tie-in

So Pixar’s supervising animator Bobby Podesta worked closely with the Sphero team to make sure Ultimate Lightning McQueen didn’t just look like Lightning McQueen, but moved and acted like him.

Yes, you gotta turn right to go left. Lightning McQueen is drifting, drifting is Lightning McQueen:

Moving violations

How McQueen does all this will send a shudder through any parent who’s stumped up – wait for it – $AU499 for a toy designed to be drifted around the kitchen table and chairs. There are more than 450 parts in Lightning McQueen, including six separate motors, working headlights, tail lights, speaker system and a trapezoidal LCD screen, all coordinated by three processors.

Under no less than five separate panels are the mechanics which deliver “emotive suspension”, the kind of characterisations which bring McQueen to life in the movies – the entire body leaning into a turn, the suggestive wheel arches:

It’s almost spooky. As impressive as BB-8 is, it’s one thing to add some beeps and whistles to a ball. Bringing Lightning McQueen to life, convincingly, while at the same time packing it in a properly engaging, high-performance RC car is taking it to a whole new level for Sphero. But they did it well enough to convince Jay Ward, the creative director of “Cars”.

“To hit an animation level that Pixar’s happy with is not the easiest thing in the world,” Ward says.

“He’s gotta move, he’s got to emote, he’s gotta talk, he’s gotta respond, he’s got be able to have performance.

“It was a pretty big punch list and it’s exciting that we’ve actually gotten there.”

“It would have easy (for Sphero) to stop at some point along the way and say ‘Hey, we can only do this, this is what the boundary is’, but they never said no, they always said “Let us see what we can do.'”

What a ride

If Sphero couldn’t have pulled it off, Ultimate Lightning McQueen would never have happened. The process of bringing him to life began 17 months ago with a couple of visits to the Disney California adventure theme park to see the giant animatronic cars at Radiator Springs Racers Ride. This is what some people call “work”:

Picture: Getty Images

Watts said the team had since interacted with Pixar animators on “more than a weekly basis” to get more than 300 animations just right for Ultimate Lightning McQueen.

In particular, Pixar’s supervising animator Bobby Podesta “personally coached them” through how to animate a car in the universe of Cars.

“Once we’d built the car and the robot animator tool and brought that out to show them, he worked through our process and our tools and our car and how we can best bring out the character of Lightning with that,” Watts said.

“The eyes are actually rendered live by an on-board processor so we can make him do any expression we want and having that tool has allowed us to respond to all the feedback we’ve had from Pixar about how we’re going to do this.”

Look closely and you’ll see McQueen’s eyes look around as he drives:

Pointless, right? Because you’d never notice it if you were driving him, but it’s a perfect example of how much Sphero cares about bringing him to life.

The other investment

Obviously, Ultimate Lightning McQueen is not cheap. And as every parent knows, R/C toys look like great fun in the box and are for a couple of days, but it’s not often kids turn them into an obsession to tinker over for months. So how does LMQ become a value proposition, compared to a $5 fidget spinner which they will play with so much you actually get angry with them?

Boredom is “something we take very, very seriously,” Wilson says. Beyond Ultimate Lightning McQueen, Sphero are determined to “bring products to life in more ways”.

“We’re really gung-ho on connected play, so some of the products aren’t just going to be pure robotics any more. We want to make ecosystems for stuff that works together.”

I got the impression I was using the word “toy” too much while speaking to Watts and Wilson. As the demonstration went on, I realised why. Teddy Ruxpin it is not:

For instance, watch the movie Cars with LMQ and he’ll boo when he sees this guy on the big screen:

Picture: Pixar/Disney

And the all-important app has features to ensure Ultimate Lightning McQueen is more than just an R/C car. There are training tasks to help master all the moves, games which McQueen also gets involved in. There’s even an “acting studio” so you can create your own animations for McQueen to perform.

There’s even a kind of coding feature, where you can pull together McQueen’s words into phrases you make up, and have them triggered by certain actions. Yes, that windscreen is much, much more than a display.

“He’s there with them. He can say all of your favourite things. Mum’s making dinner and she’s puts a plate down in front of you and you can have him say ‘thank you’.”

So Sphero are well beyond toys and into “robot companion” territory with Lightning McQueen. Or, as Wilson wants them known, “connected companions” and it’s something Sphero will address in its next product, another big franchise tie-in just a couple of weeks away which explores a separate avenue of AI and connectivity.

Wilson can’t give out any details yet, but he says the two paths will “almost certainly begin to merge” in future releases.

If they have time, which they don’t.

“We don’t have time to do anything else, to be honest,” Wilson said.

“We thought we did and we put some time into some ideas with advanced robotics and it just turns out that the culture of our company is all about fun and just building amazing experiences for kids and child-minded adults like ourselves.

“That’s our specialty now.”

Ultimate Lightning McQueen is available for pre-order from EB Games and Zing from today and will be on shelves in early July. Cars 3 will be released in Australian cinemas on June 22.

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