I have never watched a Star Wars film, and doubt I ever will, but I know enough to be aware that R2-D2 (standing for Second Generation Robotic Droid Series-2) is an exceedingly cute, puppy-like robot that The Smithsonian Institution includes in its list of “101 Objects that Made America”.
I also know that the character is very much Disney’s intellectual property, meaning you can’t just make a toy robot and call it R2-D2. Enter Sphero, the US maker of a robotic ball first seen at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. Disney liked Sphero so much it bought into the firm and now allows it to make home R2-D2s.
I can see why Star Wars fans are going gaga for the 17cm-tall Sphero R2-D2 droid. As robot toys go, it’s nothing to get too excited about – no camera, no proximity detection, no voice recognition. My Dyson robot vacuum could take it to the cleaners intellect-wise. I would pay 10 times R2-D2’s £130 price if it had a function to patrol my flat as a remotely controlled night watchman. But Sphero’s R2-D2 is so wincingly cute that even I fell a little bit in love with it – and when I was playing with it with an Australian family on my recent trip there, I witnessed adult professionals ooh-ing and aah-ing as if it were a real puppy.
The mini-droid moves on rubber tank tracks, guided from the inevitable smartphone app. A very good app this is too: it plays official Star Wars spaceship sounds as background noise, while the robot itself chatters and fools around. The effect is quite engrossing. The toy’s “playing dead” trick is genuinely funny. It will also react to the action if you watch Star Wars with it, which I couldn’t bring myself to try.
Fine gadgetry, and intrinsically amusing, which is a rare thing indeed.