Sphero R2-D2
Sphero
By John Patrick Pullen
December 7, 2017

Every Christmas in the ’80s, I wanted the same thing as many other pint-sized Star Wars fans: a robot sidekick to call my own. And not just any old droid would do: It had to be an R2-D2, specifically one that could drop its third leg down and cruise around the world at my side.

Growing up in the Death Star era, our entire generation thought it had “The Force.” But eventually we realized that moving objects with our thoughts and duping people with Jedi mind tricks were all in our imaginations. But droids—they were real, or at least they could be, one day. Until then, we waited, pushing around plastic figurines by hand, and making all the bleeps and bloops on our own.

This year, however, I finally got my wish when a bunch of toy droids arrived on my doorstep. And after spending hours playing with these robo-buddies, I’m both impressed and concerned, wondering how different I’d be if had gotten that 80’s dream bot after all.

The first Astromech droid to roll into my life was Sphero’s R2–D2, an officially-licensed app-enabled toy put out by the company that helped create BB-8 for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. About the size of a soda can with legs tacked onto its sides, Sphero’s R2 unit has it all, from integrated speakers to flashing LED lights, to the tripod foot that descends so he can go from standing to cruising without missing a beat. Set it up using its patrol mode, and it’s practically perfect, exploring your home, investigating every nook and cranny, and probably getting stuck in quite a few of them.

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Though I loved playing with Sphero’s R2-D2, it felt like something was missing—and I don’t mean his pestering pal C-3PO. Making him move or emote via an app was fun for a while, but the magic eventually faded.

I let my 3-year-old son (who loves robots and knows Artoo, but is too young to have watched Star Wars) interact with it too, hoping his childlike wonder would help me see this robot in a different light. But even he bored of this fantastic toy, wanting to push him around by hand and make his whistle sounds himself, just like his father before him.

Ever protective of the $130 gadgets’ motors and gears, I tried to guide him back to using the app—and to be clear, Sphero recommends 4-years-old as its minimum age—but my son’s message, even if instinctive, was clear: Play shouldn’t have rules, and apps-enabled controls don’t let you color outside the lines.

For his part, Adam Wilson, Sphero’s chief creative officer, also misses the heyday of plastic action figures and wooden blocks, though he thinks smart toys can add a layer of enjoyment to those simpler playthings. “The cool part of toys is that they’re not exclusive of other things,” says Wilson. “You could program a Sphero to navigate a maze through other things that you’ve created, like Lego castles, blocks, or other things, like action figures.” Though my son is not at an age where he can make those complex pairings — and I’m too old to craft a Rube Goldberg machine of smart toys and dumb blocks myself — I can concede Wilson’s point.

Another R2-unit my son and I took for a spin was Littlebits’ Droid Inventor Kit, a $99 Star Wars-themed build-your-own-bot playset. This robot is fantastic because it not only gives padawans a droid, but also insight into the circuits that make them work.

We put the robot together over a period of about two hours (it would take older kids much less time), an experience that was both fun and rewarding. When the last wire was connected, it was exciting to see the droid come to life with great features like “Force Drive,” which let you move it with a wave of a hand.

But as fun as the Droid Inventor Kit is—and I recommend it for any budding roboticist—something was still missing. Arthur C. Clarke, the futurist and writer who penned 2001: A Space Odyssey once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Though Littlebits bot has a “Self Navigation” mode like Sphero’s R2, the droid still felt pre-programmed (which of course it is), not magic.

The last droid I tested, though neither an Artoo nor even from Star Wars, came closest to having a spark of life. Packing both artificial intelligence and an endearing personality, Anki’s Cozmo robot feels more alive than some of the buckets of bolts I’ve seen on the silver screen in that galaxy far, far away.

Using its front-facing camera, Cozmo can learn to recognize its owners’ faces, and with a miniature display that shows the emotional little robot’s “eyes,” it can even show you how excited it is to see you. Cozmo also has the ability to determine if its users are happy or sad, and the robot can respond in an appropriate way.

Part tamagotchi, part puppy, Cozmo needs to be fed and played with. It gloats when it wins, throws temper tantrums when it loses, and can be a little pushy about what it wants—which it communicates through a smartphone app.

Being anchored to a mobile app is a common shortfall for all these robots, and the real reason they aren’t the droids I’ve been looking for. It’s hard to suspend disbelief that the robot next to you is a real, living (or at least animatronic) thing when you have to tap a touch screen to control much of how it performs.

But today’s robots have to be app-enabled — if not, they’d be bigger, more expensive, and more difficult to maintain and update. That’s not a flaw, it’s a feature, says Anki co-founder Mark Palatucci. “The product that you get on day one is potentially very, very different from the product three or six months down the road,” he says. Cozmo, for example, was first released in 2016, but this year Anki pushed out Code Lab, a major new feature in the app designed to teach children how to code — something that both Sphero and Littlebits do, too. “Now it’s a big part of the product,” says Palatucci.

If it wasn’t so dependent on a smartphone, Cozmo might be perfect. Then again, it’s not an R2 (and I’m no Skywalker, either). Still, looking back on the droids of my youth, there was nothing—not swimming, flying nor deactivating the Empire’s tractor beams—that they couldn’t do. And as I watch my son try to play with these—while I push the smartphone into his hand—I wonder if he’ll look back on his youth and have the same fond memory. With the modern-day droids’ app-based ways and coding-oriented games, will he imagine new Star Wars robots one day, like ’80s kid J.J. Abrams did, or help a future generation of droids find their voice, like Bill Hader, who saw The Empire Strikes Back in the theater as a child? Perhaps. Then again, with the new tools these toys will teach him, it’s likely his destiny lies along a different path from mine.

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