​How Sphero made the coolest connected toys of the year

We speak with Sphero's co-founder about creating a Force push wearable for BB-8
Sphero's connected toys win

In an era where virtual reality, augmented reality and headsets are all over the place, it's rare that a physical toy can capture anyone's attention. It may be down to the fact that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has created another generation's worth of Star Wars frenzy (not that the old ones lost any steam over the years). And it doesn't hurt that a wearable gives you the power to 'become a Jedi' to control what's arguably the most popular character in the new film.

I'm of course referring to Sphero's BB-8 robot and the companion Force Band wearable that you can pick up in a bundle for $199.99 or the band alone for $79.99.

The first Sphero BB-8 made its way into the world last year, but very soon, you'll be able to control the little bot from your wrist in addition to your mobile device. The toyish wearable has been seen here and there at events wowing everyone with its magical ability to 'Force push' BB-8 around.

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Adam Wilson, the co-founder of Sphero told us it wasn't always easy, but for an office full of Star Wars fans, the end product has made them pretty happy being able to bring such a beloved character to life. Sphero didn't set out to make a Star Wars themed toy or wearable - from what Wilson says, it sounds like everything fell into place and fortunately, took off for the better.

Before BB-8 awakened

sphero bb-8 force band

The BB-8 isn't the company's first robot, or even the second, though it shares similar qualities with its predecessors. In the beginning, Wilson says he and his co-founder Ian Bernstein wanted to do something different using smartphones.

"We had this idea that we could change people's perception of what a robot is. Also, any other robots we were playing with at the time had these giant controllers.

"So we decided to put robots (controllers) onto smartphones, and that was the idea of the original Sphero in 2011 which we showed at CES. I think at that point we showed people what robotics could do and what a smart, connected toy could be."

After creating the coding-focused Ollie for budding developers, teachers and students, Wilson and co were still wondering, "How can we put more character, more emotion into these products?"

Enter Disney and a random JJ Abrams photo

sphero bb-8 force band

In 2014, Wilson, Bernstein and Sphero CEO Paul Berberian took a risk and joined the Disney Accelerator program. After four months, they became one of the 10 teams who made it through to meet Disney CEO Bob Iger and pitch their ideas.

"He was listening to everything we were saying about Sphero then afterwards he was flipping through some pictures and said, 'I have something to show you guys.' It was him, his wife and kids, then it's him and JJ Abrams with a little BB-8 before anyone had even heard about BB-8 and (the new) Star Wars.

"Then he said, 'That's one of the most amazing robots they're coming up with. You guys should try to make that as a toy.'"

Thus began a what Wilson deems a "historic moment" for Sphero. He already felt like the company had made BB-8. It was just a matter of putting the rest of the pieces together.

Partnering up with Disney allowed the creation of the first connected toy. The clean, polished BB-8 was a big hit with fans especially with its perfectly timed release. But it only got more afterwards.

Force Band, meet BB-8

sphero bb-8 force band

While moving BB-8 is fun with a phone, the clear winner for remote control is through the Force Band. Thankfully Wilson and team thought so too and wanted to push the envelope further (pun intended). He says, "At the time, we thought how cool would it be to put everything from Sphero onto your watch or onto a wristband?"

Cool indeed, but why not make an app for one of the many Apple Watches or Android Wear devices already out there? For one, the BB-8 is still a kid's toy. It's doubtful a parent would buy their child such an expensive piece of tech to wear. Wilson says parents have told him that it's hard enough handing over a pricey smartphone for BB-8 control. Making an app for existing smartwatches just doesn't make sense for a toy.

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On a developer level, making something complex wouldn't work either. In order to create a cross-platform device, it would take a bit more time and work that, again, doesn't make sense for kids to own.

"So we own all of it (the Sphero tech). Meaning we don't know what's inside an iPhone or Android phones. We don't know the antennas or programming. It's hard to make it really perfect if you only have one side of the equation.

"We know everything happening here (points at BB-8) but everything happening here (points at wristwatch) is out of our control. Imagine if we had both - all the sensors here (on the watch) and the communication between both of these would be amazing. You'd be able to tie these two things together really well."


Designing the Force Band

sphero bb-8 force band

After figuring out the big picture, Sphero set out to make its own simple wearable that could talk to BB-8 without the fuss and hassle of figuring out the programming for the specific platforms out there.

But designing the new toy to work and meet Disney/LucasArts standards wasn't always a simple process. Apparently there are rules and very specific instructions that must be followed, right down to the font on the packaging.

Using the idea of the Force in tandem with BB-8 also had to meet canon, and essentially make sense. While pitching LucasArts, Wilson says many, many ideas were used in order to move forward.

"You can't just design anything you want. It has to fit very specific LucasArts design guidelines. It has to be a character that interacts with BB-8, which left us with two characters - Rey and Poe really - and it can't break the lore.

"Obviously there's no Force Band in the (Star Wars) universe, Rey doesn't use one for her lightsaber. But there could be a cool wristband that Poe would wear, and since BB-8 was basically Poe's droid, we modeled the wristband and the new charger off of that."

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From there it was a matter of using the right colors to fit into Poe's outfit, and creating a band you could actually see him wearing. Wilson says there were "probably 20-30 different ones we pitched" until the one that's hitting the store shelves was picked as the final design.

Final for this year at least, or until the next Star Wars film comes out. Wilson says there are many plans to update the accompanying app (which isn't needed to use either device) so it's possible other iterations of the Force Band will show up. Given how popular the BB-8 robot is and the interest in the wearable, there's no doubt Disney wouldn't mind Sphero's future Star Wars-themed ideas.


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