Among the inevitable avalanche of merchandise that accompanied the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens last year, Sphero's little app-controlled BB-8 was a clear standout. An instant fan-favorite character, the little spherical robot was a perfect fit for the company's line of… well, spherical robots, and the toy was just bursting with personality and authenticity in terms of look and sound. With this year's version, Sphero makes users feel (kind of) like a Jedi (sometimes) with the Force Band, a wearable that allows BB-8 to be steered with motion controls.
The first thing you notice is the droid's new battle-worn paint job. Gone is his fresh-off-the-factory-floor sheen, replaced with a battered and sand-blasted look that's more in-tune with how BB-8 actually looked in the movie. It's a minor change, but it's one we liked: this robot has been around (pun intended) and suffered some knocks, even before our atrocious driving skills scuffed him up against every piece of furniture in the office.
That change is only skin-deep though: functionally, this new edition is identical to the model released last year. While the robot can still be controlled with the same iOS and Android app, the big ticket addition is the motion-sensing Force Band.
On the outside, this wearable gadget nails the Star Wars aesthetic, looking like a prop you'd expect to see Poe Dameron donning on-screen, but the effect wavers a little when you actually strap it to your wrist where it's light weight makes it feel like a cheap and clunky plastic watch. A toy.
But that exterior hides some decent innards. There is a surprisingly strong vibrating haptic motor in there, along with a loud, clear speaker that booms instructions in an Obi-Wan soundalike voice and, of course, the in-built gyroscope and accelerometer that track the wearer's gestures for the droid to follow.
Pairing is painless, as BB-8 and the Force Band connect almost instantly via Bluetooth. Suddenly, his little magnet-magic head was following every slight turn of the wrist, in what felt like one-to-one motion. A solid "Force Push" (holding your arm up and pushing out) and BB-8 was off and rolling. The droid will speed up if you raise your arm higher and slow down to a complete stop as you lower your arm to your side. Moving your arm left or right will send BB-8 in those directions. We found that steering the droid through sweeping hand gestures is far more satisfying, not to mention crowd-pleasing, than using the virtual buttons on the app.
There is one big caveat though. Getting the BB-8 to follow orders with the Force Band can be an extremely fiddly affair, and even when it does work, it didn't obey for long. In our experience, the cheeky little droid had a tendency to lose track of which direction is which, veering off-course and, often literally, losing his head.
Frustrating as it was, we did find that our driving skills improved over time, although never quite to the point where the issues fully went away. It might just be a steep learning curve we need more time to overcome, but if you're going to fork out this much money for a remote-controlled robot – and give it to a kid, no less – it'd be nice if it reliably did as it was told.
That said, as anyone who's ever let a child use their iPad and come back to 50 selfies and a new Angry Birds high score knows, kids do seem to have a knack for quickly mastering new gadgets. With the BB-8 pitched squarely at a young audience (with the Big Kid market a given), we wouldn't be surprised to hear that the pups soon outperform their parents.
Further proving its child-friendliness, the Force Band can be used with a BB-8 independently of any smart device. Once the band and bot are paired, parents can send little Jimmy off to play without entrusting him with a $600 phone.
If you do connect the Force Band to an iOS or Android device, a free app (separate from BB-8's existing one) throws in a few extra things to play with. Along with a tutorial mode to get your droid-driving chops up before inflicting them on the real thing, there's a bite-sized, Pokémon Go-esque mini-game called Force Awareness. Designed to run in the background while you go about your day-to-day business, the Band will occasionally declare that it senses a disturbance in the Force. When it does, you move your arm around in a circle and actually feel the Force (okay, the vibrating haptic feedback) as it guides you to lock in on the disturbance.
Your reward for this goofy charade is a collectible item the game calls a "holocron." Once you've nabbed one, check the app on your smart device to bring up baseball card-like stats on a character, weapon or vehicle from the Star Wars universe. Some holocrons can then be equipped to the Force Band through a third mode, Combat Training, which basically turns the wearable into one of those lightsaber apps that make vwing noises when you swing your phone. Depending on which one you swap in, waving your arm around might sound like a Tie Fighter zipping past, or punching forwards may fire off the pew-pew of a blaster.
Sure, these modes may be pretty pointless, but they do add a nice little gamified element to the wearable, and one that appeals far too much to the compulsive collectors in us. Although, between the overblown hand motions and the un-muteable voice, it's probably not something you'll want to play in public.
Those modes are the extent of what's available at launch, but the creators stress that more will be added over time. Last year's BB-8 got post-release functions like Watch With Me, where the droid can "watch" The Force Awakens and react to certain scenes with excited or scared-sounding bleeps and whistles, so it will be interesting to see what new modes will be introduced in the future.
The new edition comes loaded with these features out-of-the-box, and it's all these little things that come together to make the Force Band worth it, in the end. It's a tad expensive, sure, and the learning curve seems steep, but if you (or the kids) are willing to stick it out, there's plenty of fun to be had here.
The Special Edition bundle includes the Battle Worn BB-8, the Force Band, a charging dock, metal tin for transport and two micro-USB cables for US$199.99. Or if you already have last year's BB-8 (or any other Sphero robot for that matter), the Force Band will be available on its own for $79.99. Both packs go on sale September 30.
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