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How They Brought Star Wars Droid BB-8 to Life

The next chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, will be released December 18. The buildup to the movie, though, is in full force (ahem). Action figures, lightsabers, clothes, shoes, posters, food — nearly anything you can think of is being slapped with a Star Wars logo to get fans pumped for Episode VII.

But there’s one toy that has Star Wars faithful more excited than all the others: a miniature, functional BB-8.

BB-8 is the newest droid in the Star Wars universe. He’s kind of like R2-D2 — if R2-D2 had a ball for a body instead of, well, a small trash can. BB-8 was introduced in the first teaser trailer for the movie, and almost immediately fans wondered how they could get one of their own.

Enter Orbotix, the company that makes super-cool robots Sphero and Ollie (both favorites of SI Kids). Through a partnership with Disney and Lucasfilm, Orbotix developed a new version of Sphero to create a fully operational BB-8. It hit stores on September 4, along with all those other products, and sold out almost immediately. And it’s easy to see why: it’s super cool, has a ton of personality, and it’s your own personal Star Wars droid!

At New York Comic Con last week, we caught up with Adam Wilson, founder of Orbotix and its Chief Software Architect, to learn more about BB-8, how the toy was created, and whether he has any inside intel on what happens in The Force Awakens. Watch a clip of BB-8 in action, then check out an edited version of our conversation.

What was the process like to bring BB-8 to life?

The process was awesome. We were pretty successful with Sphero and Ollie. We were doing just fine. But we realized we were missing something: a character. So we're like, “We want to learn from the best, bring somebody in.” We couldn't really find somebody we felt was on par or was somebody we wanted and we saw this Disney TechStars Accelerator. We thought, "Hmmm… let's apply.” Even though it's for startups with, like, 2 or 3 people, and we were already established, like 40 people, but said, “We need this!” So we did it, we applied, they accepted us, and from there we met Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney. This is before the [Force Awakens] trailer or the teaser came out or anything. Nobody knew what BB-8 was. And [Iger] said, “What are you guys up to?” We showed him all of our stuff. We had some other stuff in the works, and said, “We're kind of doing this.” And he's like, “That's awesome, keep doing that, but you know you could make a lot of money if you just made this toy.” And he showed us a scene from Star Wars and we we're, like, holy crap! We could absolutely make that toy! Better than anybody! I mean, what a perfect match. [The thing was,] we didn't want a Jar-Jar, we wanted a hero droid. So they assured us that if we take this, it's a hero droid. This is the character. Alright, we're going to do it. But it's going to be all in for us. We're not a big company. This is all in. And we did. We went 100 percent in, as deep as we could.

So, I'm assuming BB-8 the basic Sphero with some other stuff going on to make sure the head doesn't fall off.

Yeah, just a little magnet setup. It's two magnets: one's a suck-down and one that pushes apart, and the other side has that same thing. So it's just kind of an interlocking between magnets that keeps it not just stuck there but also from spinning around.

How long did it take to get from getting the license to make the toy to we're ready to show it off? How many tests did you go through what was that process like?

It's kind of interesting... So, the day Bob Iger showed us that clip — we already had our 3D printers, we had everything there at Disney, and so we just made it, that day. We're like, “We made it, here it is, look at it.” And he was like, “It works flawlessly! The head stays up there…” It was just something we had already done. This was not our first magnet accessory on a robot ball. And in fact, I already have the patent for that. That was one of our fastest patents. Like, who cares about magnetic accessories on robot balls? Sure, you guys got that. [But now,] it seems like the entire world now cares about robot balls with magnets because there's really no other way to do it. We really are the best to make this product. If it's a rolling ball droid, we're the best. But I would say, from the time we saw that first clip, we made that one that night… But the real versions we're showing off, we showed it off at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show], which was four months after.

It's kind of interesting to hear how kind of low-impact the whole thing was. It seems like something that needs a little bit of magic to make work...

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think the low-impact part for us was, again, we're not only a startup company but one that really believes in hacking and just having fun. On fridays, our team has fun. They kind of do whatever they want. Like, 3D print this, glue this on, magnet this, dress him up, whatever you want to do. And so it might have been challenging if we didn't have that stuff. But we have this huge repertoire of… Yeah, magnet stuff? We got that. So it wasn't like this new thing to us. Yeah, we know how to make a thing glide on top of this ball. But, again, it comes down to having five years of technology behind that. We have a control system that all we had to do was change very few things because we knew... We have a mathematical model of the ball. You know what I mean? We did all of that back in the day. So if you think about somebody starting now, they're like, “Oh my God, you have to make, first, a robot ball, then it's got to have the head, and…” Right? We know what that entails. I feel bad for the people who had to make, like, the Hasbro one. Because they had to start fresh. There's no way they could compete with this. It was really right place, right time. 

In the process of making it, did you only see that short clip of what Bob Iger showed you? Or did you end up seeing more to sort of get a sense of its personality?

We got a packet of stuff from Lucasarts and the prop shop. But none of it was ever a video of the thing actually working. It was always very puppeteered. So we had to translate that into what we thought the movie was going to be. So it was very hard. It was a 20 Questions type game. You can't ask what it moves like, but does it move like this? No. What about like this? Yeah, that's how it moves. So then we got to what we consider our minimal product. It's got everything, it looks good, it drives good. Now let's make the app as good as we can. And that's kind of where we went. But no, we didn't see anything. If you dig out on the Internet for, like, the leaks [of images and footage], you've probably seen more than we have.

Well, the robot is great. and as someone who came to sphero early on in the product's history, it's really great to see you guys get this kind of opportunity and really hit it out of the park.

It's really humbling from our point of view. As a startup, you're like, “We will either fail or succeed, so let's do whatever we can not to fail.” And part of it is, when we saw the Disney thing, was like, we have a huge problem in our company — not a problem, but a problem to us: Sphero is awesome. If we could just give it personality so that there's a little bit more to it, we know people will love it.

Learn more about BB-8, including how to purchase the toy, at!

Photos: Orbotix (BB-8 product shots), YouTube (trailer footage)

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