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This $150 Star Wars toy restored my faith in our robot overlords

bb-8 sphero
bb-8 sphero

Sphero's BB-8 with a goldfish friend.

Today, Disney, Lucasfilm, and robotics company Sphero finally unveiled the toy version of BB-8, the droid that's looking like the breakout hit character from the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

I got an early demo of BB-8, and I can tell you that it's exactly what you've been wanting without even knowing it: A droid for your home.

And while BB-8 isn't exactly "useful," it's a lot of fun. If the future of technology looks more like BB-8, then color me excited.

See, the issue is that a lot of modern technology lacks any kind of real personality. If I hand you my iPhone, Siri will respond to you in exactly the same way she does to me, without even noticing a difference.

Microsoft's Cortana is a step up, given that she learns your preferences and comes with a little more of an attitude, but it's still a far cry from what Star Wars first promised us back in 1977.

A big part of the problem, says Sphero Chief Creative Officer Rob Maigret, is the context. When you talk to Siri, or Amazon Echo, or any of those things, you're expecting to get something done. It's a very functional context,where you only talk to them if you're looking to get something done. Otherwise, they're absent from your life.

Enter BB-8. Like R2-D2 and C-3PO before him, he has a "job" and a "real personality," Maigret says. You can already tell some of that from his brief appearances in the Star Wars trailers:

The toy takes that personality from the movie and uses it as the starting point for how you interact with it.

"We use the narrative to build the story, the character of this robot," Maigret says.

The Sphero version of BB-8 is controlled from a smartphone app, as all things must be. The app opens with the traditional John Williams fanfare, as all Star Wars tie-ins must do. And then the real fun starts.

bb8 follow mode
bb8 follow mode

BB-8 in follow mode.

You can control BB-8 directly with the smartphone, or else set a string of basic commands. Maigret promises that the app comes with "scenarios," or pre-programmed actions he can perform based on the movies, and get more later.

"It's one step away from programming," Maigret says.

Speaking of programming, this is an area of some disappointment. A big focus of Sphero's is on getting kids to learn how to code.

Sphero's flagship Ollie robot, which is faster and can do more tricks than BB-8 (since BB-8's magnet-attached head might fly off), has a wide-reaching hobbyist community who hack and program the robot in ways the creators never intended.

Maigret says that Sphero would love to bring that extensibility into BB-8, but the licensing deal with Lucasfilm makes that tricky.

bb-8 charger with app
bb-8 charger with app

(Sphero/© BB-8 with his charging cradle and app.

"There's a lot of things we want to do that are close to our roots, but we have to do some selling to Lucas," Maigret says.

But in all other regards, Lucasfilm was a great partner to Sphero, Maigret says. As a Disney-incubated startup mentored by CEO Bob Iger directly, their ties to the company were already strong.

JJ Abrams, the director of the next Star Wars film, signed off on the toy's final design. And a couple of the robot noises that the company came up with made their way back to the movie, Maigret says.

Those signauture Star Wars noises are one of a few things that really make BB-8 so cool. If he bumps into something, he makes that frustrated R2-D2-style whine that you're probably hearing in your head right now.

bb8 droid peek
bb8 droid peek

BB-8 peeks around a corner.

When he's just rolling around or standing still, he looks around in a way that can only be described as "curiously," showing a simulated, but still compelling, interest in his surroundings. A beta voice control mode on the app lets you ask him questions.

Ask BB-8 how he's feeling, and he shakes his head sympathetically. Tell him "It's a trap!" and he shudders and runs away. When he goes into his contactless charging cradle, he convincingly shakes his head and "goes to sleep."

In other words, even though it's not exactly artificial intelligence, it feels real and personable in a way that very little other "smart" technology does yet. It's not hard to imagine kids getting this for Christmas and talking to it like it's a family pet.

To that end, Maigret says a future version of BB-8 may well forego the smartphone entirely in favor of an entirely voice command and gesture-based interface, to bring it that much closer to the movie experience.

Sphero is sending us a BB-8 review unit, so we'll take a closer look soon. In the meanwhile, just from my early demo, BB-8 points the way to a technological future that's maybe just a little friendlier. In an age of self-driving cars and quinoa-making robots, we may just need it.

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