Smartphone Not Included

The Star Wars BB-8 App-Controlled Droid

IFA2015_lHere’s an amazing balancing act between tech and toy.

The official video of the new Star Wars BB-8 toy from Sphero may leave many adults wondering if they were born a few decades too soon. Others will find a way to justify the $150 price tag for the remote-controlled rolling robot.

BB-8 is part of the recently introduced Star Wars: The Force Awakens portfolio of toys, and was always sure to get plenty of attention. But this rolling remote-controlled robot-like drone toy is so tech hip that it’s being shown to eager crowds at the IFA 2015 trade show in Germany, where consumer electronic firms unveil some of their most innovative products and inventions. BB-8, which requires an Android or iOS device to control the unit, shows a growing trend among toy makers: they’re getting smart, too.

For Sphero, the opportunity to co-brand with the Star Wars franchise is bringing the start-up’s technologies to the headlines. BB-8 isn’t Sphero’s first product, but fits well with the company’s portfolio of rolling connected things.

The company’s eponymous Sphero ball was introduced several years ago as a smartphone accessory with no particular purpose. It could be programmed, used for games or rolled around just to relieve stress or drive a pet wild. The opened-ended approach with these toys means they overlap with high-tech learning. Playthings now have their own software development kits. Parents are voicing growing concerns about smartphones absorbing all of their children’s time, but products like Sphero and BB-8 could provide smart devices with an educational purpose.

About a decade ago, Lego introduced Mindstorms kits, which straddled the world of plastic building blocks and programmable robots and allowed users to create a computer code to control a reconfigurable robot. Toys and programming interfaces worked together.

It’s encouraging that atoms and bits can combine so well in the likes of the Mindstorms kits and now BB-8 and its siblings, encouraging imagination and interest in coding. Connected toys provide smartphones and tablets with another reason for being. Sphero isn’t the first company to depend on a smart device as a remote, but this high-profile product will further inspire more smart toys. Playthings will routinely contain components such as programmable processors, Bluetooth chipsets, gyroscopes and accelerometers. These were special features found in high-end phones a decade ago, but now they’re nearly kids’ stuff. There will be no stopping products like BB-8.

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