Star Wars Superfans Piece Together How BB-8 Works


Usually cast appearance are among the highlights of Star Wars Celebration, and this past year’s event was no different. The emergence of one of the newest players in the Star Wars universe completely stole the show.

But it wasn’t any of the human actors or actresses. This time, the scene-stealer was a droid.

When BB-8 rolled onto the Celebration stage at the Anaheim Convention Center, you could feel the entire audience take in a giant breath. Not only was it unexpected to see a new character of a closely guarded sequel trotted out for all to see, but at the same time, it was a physical, tangible confirmation of the promises that J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm had made regarding the use of practical effects in The Force Awakens.

And it would be an understatement to say that BB-8 has been embraced by the Star Wars community. If you just started following Star Wars today, you would think the droid has been around since the beginning of the franchise, with all the excitement and fan recreations of him.

Now, a group of engineers have taken their adoration even further by coming up with exactly how BB-8 might work.

Over on the appropriately-titled, two designers have compiled all the information we know about BB-8, including the patents that have been filed in the droid’s design.

The explanation can get pretty technical at times, but overall, the writing and presentation of ideas is clean and detailed:

"“The patent presents several variants of the invention, but one of them is suspiciously similar to BB-8. According to this configuration, the body contains a drive system that always keeps a relative position with respect to the sphere. The system uses omni wheels to make the sphere roll in any direction. Each of those wheels is connected to a motor. The robot uses sensors (gyroscopes and accelerometers) to determine its position and dynamics.”"

If you remember, BB-8’s realization owes a lot to a robotics company called Sphero that was actually contacted by Disney CEO Bob Iger to help with building the droid. The company was already in the process of building rolling robots to begin with, but it turned out to be a serendipitous moment of timing that The Force Awakens needed just such a machine (or at least, that’s the narrative Disney is presenting us…)

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The site also includes a cool animation depicting the insides of BB-8 and the mechanisms controlling him. All in all, it’s quite exhaustive work, and it doesn’t seem like the two are quite finished yet in investigating just how this droid was made.

All of this work just goes to show the dual influences that practical movie effects can achieve. The commitment to making tangible props and characters lends a sense of both magic and realism to a movie that computer effects can’t quite imitate. But at the same time, it’s stimulating the imagination and cunning of the fans who are witnessing the artistry on display.

My point is: Would this be as much fun if BB-8 were designed by a computer program?

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