September 01, 2017

A chat with Jon Carroll from Sphero

After seeing Sphero’s new R2-D2 and BB-9E droids in action, I then had the chance to ask Jon Carroll, Sphero's Director of Prototyping all about the droids, their relationship with Lucasfilm and more.

Maxi-Geek: So, with the R2-D2 was the creation of him something that came from Sphero or was it a request by Lucasfilm?

Jon Carroll: It was our decision, we have a lot of Star Wars fans within the company, a lot of older Star Wars fans, who were really attached to R2-D2 growing up. It was something that we really wanted to do, so when we talked to Lucas(film) and they said he was going to have a big part in the new movie, it was something we knew we had to do.

MG: So how long, from when the decision was made to go ahead with R2-D2 to get him set for build?

JC: 16 months probably, it’s usually what we go for, sometimes it is shorter though. It was about the same time that we found out about BB-9E, which would have been around February or March 2016.

MG: So, a few months after The Force Awakens was released?

JC: Yeah.

MG: With BB-9E being more on an extension of BB-8, R2-D2 took a lot more work, correct, so how hard was it to get R2-D2 to work the way people expected him to work?

JC: It was a lot of tweaking, it took dozens of people touching it, working and iterating a lot, he was actually a really hard character to build. You know with the waddle, the retractable leg and getting it all to work within that small of package and we are only using four motors to do it all. Which is quite impressive, there is a really intricate cam system that you can look up and see when the leg is out and it is one motor that controls the leg coming out, the body shifting and the waddling. With the two different ends of the cam, one end makes him waddle and the other brings up the leg.

The most challenging thing we had to do, was probably program him to be life like, make the animations look really real. Like, my background is computer science and I program the robots a lot that we make, you know I can program them to move around and do things, but I will never be able to do it like a 3d animator could in Maya or something. So, we built a tool chain where we have a 3d model in Maya and we had an experienced 3d animator who goes in there and as he animates on his computer, it is sent to the robot which plays it immediately. He can then see, did it play the way I expected, go back and tweak it, there was a ton of iterations and effort that was put into those animations, that really makes them feel less robotic and more like his character.

MG: So with those animations, did you take a lot of reference from the original trilogy?

JC: We do, so, we spent a lot of time watching the original movies, the animator sat there and looped over and over and over again, he had this edit he made of every scene that R2-D2 was in, in all the previous movies. We got to go into the archives as well and pull out a lot of old R2-D2 sounds, you know dig them up and use them again.

MG: So, if you had to position R2-D2 as from one trilogy, would he be more Original trilogy or Prequel trilogy? I noticed he does not have his little jet and other gadgets he picked up and then lost along the way.

JC: Laughs – So, we were trying to make the R2-D2 that was at the end of Return of the Jedi and leading into The Force Awakens, so the most recent sort of incarnation of him.

MG: With R2-D2 and him waddling, is there a feature that you think people will register the most with him?

JC: I think putting him on patrol mode and having him move around and waddle, you know hanging out on your desk.

MG: I noticed the waddle is him not really walking anywhere, just sort of shuffling back and forth

JC: Yeah.

MG: So with R2-D2 being such a classic character, is there something that you think he does really well?

JC: I think people are going to enjoy watching the movies with him, along with the other droids, based on the interaction patterns that we saw with BB-8 and that was the thing that people kept coming back to again and again. So I think rolling out the original movies, one at a time, is what we will see people engage with the most and also, just having him sit here in idle, you know I just want him to sit here on my desk all day.

MG: Battery life is important in everything these days, so what can people expect in battery life from R2-D2?

JC: Over an hour is what we say, but based on our press demos that we have been doing, we have been seeing over 2. Though we like to under promise and over deliver with regards to battery life, so one hour is our official stance.

MG: You mentioned before that you wanted him to be to scale with BB-8 and BB-9E, how did that decision come about, was it early on in the design process?

JC: It was pretty early on, but we did test other sizes. We did a bunch of user testing and internal testings, where we did 3d prints of him and painted him, so he was a bit bigger and a bit smaller, with both the user and internal testing saying that this size was best.

MG: Most people will know that Lucasfilm holds a tight control over Star Wars, was there things that you and the team had placed with R2-D2 that Lucasfilm rejected? Or were they requesting things for you to add?

JC: For this one (R2-D2) it was really great, we went to them and I think we delivered more than they expected in a lot of ways, especially with the one where he falls over when the Jawas shoot him. They were just tickled when they saw that, so he was an easy one. It is usually the new ones, where we still don’t know a lot about him (BB-9E), we work closely with, but a lot of times we are guessing.

MG: So between the two of them, you mentioned a lot of Star Wars fans on staff, so R2-D2 is going to be a character that most people will know fairly well. How does a new character like BB-9E coming in get received by the staff and how do they try to build something that they don’t know?

JC: People get really excited, because we get to ask a lot of questions, I mean we have known about this character for a year now and we feel like we are in the know. It is cool, because you feel like you are along for the ride in finding a new character, that will hopefully be around for generations.

MG: I also wanted to know, you guys just released Lightning McQueen and Spider-man, not Star Wars, is there a desire on staff to release more Star Wars figures, but not tied to a specific movie. So would you consider a Rancor, but with the Spider-man tech inside, how do you balance that line between what one person might think is a cool character as opposed to a well know character?

JC: It is hard, I mean we have to be able to sell it, we have talked about other characters and what not and I don’t think that this will be the last Star Wars product that we make.

MG: So, with BB-9E, you mentioned that you were learning about him as you went, so how was that process of creating something as you were learning about it?

JC: So, we knew what the character looked like, but a lot of things, even the sounds that he makes, we didn’t get until later on in the process, as he was still being defined a lot, by the director and writers of the movie. But we knew what he looked like and where he appeared in the movie, that he was part of the First Order, but a lot of the design and build was us going to them and saying, here is what we did. A lot of the time they will go, no not that or do this and then asking why it is that way and getting the response of can’t tell ya.

MG: With BB-9E being an extension of the BB-8 design, with the led and power in the head and such, is there an element from him that you would like to take back to BB-8, if you had a chance to re do BB-8?

JC: Defiently the light in the head and ultimately, we would love to get sound up there as well.

MG: With BB-9E, as he is around the same size as BB-8 are we looking around the same battery life with BB-9E?

JC: Yeah, so over and hour, with BB-9E taking 3 hours to charge, with a slower charge as he does not have a direct plug, where R2-D2 charges faster as he gets plugged in directly. In fact R2-D2 comes with a nice cable, that we tried to match the colours of the piping on his feet.

MG: Finally, you mentioned that you can have the three of the BB-8, R2-D2 and BB-9E all watching the movies with you. Is there any sort of interaction between the three of them, will R2-D2 know if he has come across BB-9E or BB-8?

JC: Yes, so in patrol mode they will know if they get near each other and might react and play one their animations, like with R2-D2 and his no, no, no.

MG: I am loving the speaker in R2-D2, (who was sitting on the table just kind of exploring at this point), the sounds coming from him is much better than the sounds coming from the phone on BB-8.

JC: One of the things that we did is we loaded all the sounds from BB-8 and BB-9E into R2-D2, so with a planned update, hopefully by Christmas, if you walk into the room and have them all charging, R2-D2 will detect that and wake up the other two and all three of them will greet you, with the sounds coming from R2-D2.

Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to answer my questions.

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