Coding With Sphero BB-8 Droid

Sphero BB-8 Droid
Lucasfilm Ltd./Sphero

If you have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you know that the BB-8 Droid pretty much steals the show. Sure, we can't understand a word it's saying, but who cares? This is a little robot with a huge personality. Sphero was really a great match to make a commercial version of BB-8. They were already making robotic spheres that you could program. Their BB-8 behaves a lot like a regular Sphero with a head.

A Review of Sphero BB-8

Sphero's BB-8 is a robot toy that can be controlled with a Bluetooth smartphone or tablet. It's small — the body is about the size of an orange — and designed to look just like BB-8 from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. BB-8 comes with an induction charging station (no need to plug it in directly) and a micro USB charging cord.

The head is attached to the body with a magnet allowing it to roll while keeping its head on top. The head is prone to falling off when it crashes into things. Just pop it right back on. Of course, it works just fine without it, too. According to specifications, BB-8 charges fully in about three hours and can run for about an hour. 

The Sphero technology behind BB-8 uses a gyroscope inside a sealed (and waterproof) sphere. BB-8 can really speed along a flat surface and does fine on carpet, tile, wood, etc. The plastic does tend to pick up dirt and dust, which isn't a problem for the body but might be for the head. The head moves smoothly on top of the body with the use of small wheels. They could get tangled with hair, so make sure to keep them clean. 

BB-8 doesn't have a speaker, so all of the sounds come out of the device you're using to control it. This is somewhat disappointing, but it certainly makes more sense than trying to integrate a speaker into such a small body while still maintaining the overall integrity of movement.

The BB-8 app includes a hologram feature which pairs augmented reality with a ghostly image to make it look (on-screen) like BB-8 is projecting a hologram. It comes with one pre-recorded message, but then you can record your own. It's fun seeing yourself as a hologram, even if it's not projected in the real world.

BB-8's motions are controlled on-screen via the app. It can be a bit tricky to control and the orientation of the controls didn't always feel natural. Several people who tried it out complained that they couldn't quite figure out which direction was forward.

This is something that would go away with use, but it's important to note. BB-8 also has a patrol mode where it wanders around on its own. It tends to get stuck places and crash into things, though, so it will depend a lot on where you're using it. It also responds (via the app) to voice commands like, "Watch out!" and "Go Explore!"

Programming Sphero BB-8

If you bought a Sphero BB-8 and have played around with the included app, you might be wondering, "Now what?" It's cute, but it's a high price point to pay for cute and little else. Luckily there is more BB-8 can do, even if Sphero isn't really allowed to advertise this fact. Download the SPRK Lightning Lab for Sphero app and follow the on-screen directions to pair it with your BB-8. Make sure it's fully charged first. 

The SPRK Lightning Lab for Sphero app opens a whole new world of play for BB-8. You can do simple things like control its movements and change its color. But there is a drag-and-drop programming environment, similar to Scratch, where kids can create their own programs for BB-8 to follow.

They can have it race forward, change color when/if it bumps into something, and then change direction to try it again. They can program it to draw shapes. You can give kids (or yourself) a challenge and see if they can make it happen.

BB-8 bowling? BB-8 Olympics? Why not? There are some fun and creative ideas for challenges, as well as lots of sample programs, on the Sphero Lightning Lab website. If you sign in via the app, you can download the sample programs and customize them for yourself. 

This isn't the only app that works with the BB-8. Also, check out Tickle (iOS only) which has a similar interface and slightly more sophisticated options. It's perfect for kids with a bit more programming experience and families with other smart objects and toys around the home. 

Should You Buy a Sphero BB-8?

Sphero's BB-8 is an investment if you do decide to purchase one — it is, after all, a remote-control toy. With just the basic Sphero BB-8 app and the included activities, it may not be a worthwhile buy for any but the most devoted fans. There just isn't a lot to do and the cuteness only takes it so far. When you add in the capabilities of the SPRK Lightning Lab app, however, the value increases dramatically.

The ability to program it yourself opens up a lot of room for creativity, but it also transforms it from a toy into a learning tool. It should also be noted that BB-8 receives firmware updates via the app, so it's possible that other capabilities will be introduced in the future. Either way, Sphero's BB-8 is a wonderful tool for encouraging Star Wars fans to engage in STEM activities while immersing them in a realistic play experience.