Why the Force, of course! Surely it’s movie magic! Nope. It’s just a really clever machine. WARNING: Reading the following post may make you lose a certain sense of wonder, like when a magician reveals his secret.
Photo by MIT Technology Review. Click on the link for a breakdown of the components.
Essentially, BB-8 probably is a larger version of a toy called Sphero, which is a free-moving chassis inside a hollow sphere with wheels pushed up to the inner wall. The chassis for BB-8 would likely be level while the robot is rolling using data from the onboard accelerometer and gyroscope much like Sphero. Unlike Sphero, BB-8 has a head, which is likely held up by magnets. Rotating the magnets would turn the head whichever way the filming crew would want it to. It’s an exciting prop for a character that probably could’ve been created using computer generated imagery. So, where did Lucasfilm get the idea to build one in real life?
BB-8’s origin actually starts long before there was even a definite plan to film The Force Awakens. In 2011, a company called Orbotix released a bluetooth controlled toy named Sphero. The company eventually rebranded itself as Sphero (not unlike how BlackBerry maker Research In Motion became BlackBerry Ltd.) and caught the attention of The Walt Disney Company through an investment initiative called Disney Accelerator, which – in their own words – “looks for technology-powered startups from around the world with innovative ideas for products and services in the consumer entertainment and media space”. According to Time magazine, Disney CEO Bob Iger saw potential in Sphero and did what Disney does best: corporate synergy. Sphero’s basic engineering principles made it to Lucasfilm, and BB-8 was born.
So what does this all mean? It means Disney will probably sell you one! You can bet that every kid will want their own BB-8 this Christmas. The Sphero toy, which is baseball-sized, does cost a whopping $130. I’d hate to think how much parents will have to fork over for a life-sized version of BB-8. I’ll probably end up getting one myself...