Sphero's R2-D2: Under the Dome

8 January 2018

#BrandManagement  •  #ProductManagement  •  #UserExperience  •  #STEM  •  #STEAM  •  #Sphero  •  #StarWars

Sphero's R2-D2 with a Jawa

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.

R2-D2's event log in the Droids app

Droid Life

A lot has changed since Sphero's BB-8 first rolled out (pun intended) in 2015.

First of all, there's a new app for the growing line of droids (currently there are four, including R2-Q5, a Best Buy-exclusive Imperial black derivative of the R2-D2 form factor). This app facilitates the play value of the droids, supporting things such as real-time motion control; pre-programmed movements and sounds; movie watch parties; and patrol functions. But actual coding and programming is done outside the Sphero Droids app. For this, there's Sphero's Edu app, which allows for custom coding of the droids' activities in a graphically-friendly format, without the need to actually know a coding language.

There's also the Force Band and a new Droid Trainer charging dock that facilitates the hologram mode for BB-8 and BB-9E. This latter component apparently replaces holographic messaging, a concept that was cool, but needed more work. More about that later.

And, specifically with the R2 units, the beeps and whirls come directly from the droid's body, not the app, which was a leading complaint upon BB-8's release.

Perhaps most importantly, these are "smart" toys. They evolve and gain new skills, just like Amazon's Alexa and Echo devices, via app updates and firmware updates downloaded from a galaxy far, far away — or wherever the server's located, most likely not that far away. This ability to learn new — free — skills can potentially go on for years after the initial hardware purchase. For example, at launch, R2 wasn't yet compatible with Sphero's Edu app or Force Band, but it is now.

Full STEAM Ahead

Now programmable with Apple's Swift Playgrounds (exclusively on iPad) as well as Sphero's Edu app, R2 offers a lot more dynamic programming and interaction options. It's not only more fun, it's also a leap ahead in terms of educational value. Particularly while using Swift, R2 smoothly transitions from STEM to full-on STEAM (throw Arts into the mix) by blending coding with storytelling; as a result, it effectively captures the essence of droid life in that galaxy far, far away.

Seems to me Sphero's biggest challenge is to get the general public to understand there's more to their balls and droids than making them beep and roam around on a floor. The marketing of their Star Wars line — including the packaging — focuses on the play aspects and the fun of the Star Wars environment, including the theme music, but it steers clear of the powerful educational prospects through the droids' programmability. It's quite the willful exclusion, and rather inexplicable.

This section of the R2-D2 page on promotes the Droids app,
but makes no mention of Sphero Edu or Swift Playgrounds.

Maybe Sphero's finally starting to see the light, though; a link to the Edu app was recently added in the Droids app. But that's a tiny step.

The Code Awakens

This site — — is hand-coded by yours truly — and it has been for nearly 18 years. I started out knowing nothing about web development and taught myself how to do it. I needed this playground — this site — as a safe zone to learn, break things and figure out how things work, hands-on.

I'm in good company. The four members of U2 taught themselves how to play instruments (and sing). Bruce Springsteen learned the guitar on his own. And I heard on the news recently self-instruction is still the most common way for people to learn how to code websites, apps and other programs. Certainly it's not an ideal arrangement for the mass production of coders needed to keep up with demand and ever-advancing technologies (which is synonymous with ever-advancing opportunities). But, nonetheless, given the abundance of relatively low-cost technology options out providing entry into the field, there's almost no excuse not to learn. It can be self-taught and tools (not toys) like R2-D2 are terrific gateways to a larger world (to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi).

For R2, that leads to the coolest step forward: Sphero's R2 units can now be programmed with the aforementioned iPad Swift Playgrounds app, which was introduced in June 2016. Take a look at this beautiful screenshot from Swift Playgrounds. It's not supposed to be intimidating; it's exciting to see math put into a context of coding and — digging deeper — into the context of the Star Wars universe.

Okay... Well... Maybe that is a little off-putting for some.

Instead, let's shuffle over to the R2-D2 Swift Playground. It covers similar ground, in a much different fashion.

And we can start making R2 come to life, just like in the movies.


R2-D2 quickly turns into a weapon of mass instruction. From R2, it's only a matter of time before other considerations come into focus: hot stuff like Bluetooth communication tools, asynchronous communication concepts and sundry other programming options, such as macros, APIs, SKs, OrbBasic and Oval (a flavor of C).

For those interested in a drag-and-drop programming experience, the Sphero Edu app fits the bill nicely.

A large assortment of motions, actions, sounds, etc., can be selected from categories such as Movement (including R2-specific options), Sensors and Comparators.

And it's also cool to monitor real-time feedback on things such as the gyroscope and accelerometer.

Topping it all off, there's also a whole community in which would-be developers can participate, with downloaded programs available from Sphero and the general public. Yep. You can create a Sphero ball or droid program or video and share it with the world.

With the growing line-up of droids, Sphero is also enhancing their abilities, including a recent update that allows the droids to interact — with either humans or other droids — autonomously and independent of the Droids app. Those of us alive on the planet today can enjoy the fun of all this relatively stress-free. The whole Terminator end-game of this rapidly-advancing technology is still several generations down the road.


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?"

Screenshots from the original BB-8 app's voice control feature

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

Screenshot from 6 Sept. 2017, after R2's launch on Force Friday II;
at the time, Episodes V and VI were not yet part of the 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 merely 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. On the plus side, R2's ability for more dynamic movement makes his reactions more fun to watch.

Smart Toys... What About the People?

I'll never be able to forget (as much as I'd like to) checking out a review for a Blu-ray of a well-regarded movie on Amazon. The movie was given one star. Why? Because the individual didn't have a Blu-ray player. And, since he needed the standard DVD instead of the Blu-ray, this person took the time to post a one-star rating on Amazon after divulging this fact: He bought the wrong item.

I've spotted similarly uninformed and unhelpful comments in reviews posted on Amazon regarding some of Sphero's products. A person can't get Lightning McQueen to work. Somebody was disappointed because they didn't realize the Force Band required an app (well, it is an app-controlled droid, after all — and the app is needed only for the initial setup and install of updates; I had 160 audio updates waiting for me). It's cute to watch BB-8 roll around for a while, but the novelty wears thin because some people think that's all it does...

People need to up their game if humanity is to have any hope for surviving the robot revolution.

The purpose of this article — to quote Lor San Tekka in Episode VII — is to "begin to make things right." I haven't seen a comprehensive breakdown of the functionality behind Sphero's Star Wars droids. I haven't looked that hard, so maybe it's out there somewhere on the interwebs. But, regardless, I've made my own — and I'll add more as time permits and as the droids add new skills.

A video of R2 and BB-8 in action might also be added here eventually. There's a particular way I'd like to go about it, so it's all about finding the time to do it the way I think it should be done. And, hopefully, that'll be before the droids take over the world — which might be sooner than I thought.


Forcing It on Force Friday II

K-2SO in Augmented Reality

The hype has hit a fever pitch ahead of the release of The Last Jedi, further supported by a stab at augmented reality.

Read on, my young apprentice


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