The robot, controlled with an app, goes on sale in the U.S. on Friday. “We like to think that this is as close to an actual droid as you can buy,” said Rob Maigret, Sphero’s chief creative officer.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” won’t hit theaters for another three months, but a fresh face has already emerged from the film: the BB-8 ball-shaped robot droid that scoots inexplicably across the desert in a theatrical trailer.
Sphero, a Boulder, Colo.-based technology firm, unveiled new photos of the BB-8 toy Thursday, and it’s generating buzz on Twitter and stories on tech blogs. The $150 robot, controlled with an app, goes on sale in the U.S. on Friday at Apple, Brookstone and Best Buy stores, as well as Sphero’s website.
“We like to think that this is as close to an actual droid as you can buy,” said Rob Maigret, Sphero’s chief creative officer.
Sphero’s turn in the spotlight stemmed from innovation and luck. The company, which is trying to give its robots humanlike personalities, was chosen last year to participate in a mentoring program that “Star Wars” owner Walt Disney Co. runs to keep an eye on emerging business talent. The company was assigned to Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Iger. Maigret worked previously at the company in its interactive unit.
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Sphero was designing high-end robot toys, and showed Iger some of its products. He, of course, was one of a few people who knew what new characters would debut in “The Force Awakens,” the first new “Star Wars” picture in 10 years and the first since Disney acquired the brand in 2012.
“He showed us stills from the set and said, ‘Could your bring this BB-8 to life?’ ” Maigret recalled.
Among the BB-8 toy’s more intriguing technologies is its ability to respond to instructions and navigate without a camera to guide it. Sphero installed a computer with algorithms that can emulate what a seeing robot would do.
“He can go on patrols and missions around your house,” Maigret said.
The BB-8 gives the company the opportunity to accomplish its bigger goal, which is to make robots another member of the family, he said.
“Look at what people are doing now with vacuum cleaners or surveillance cameras,” he said. We don’t have a relationship with those devices; they’re just utility. If you look at what ‘Star Wars’ did with characters like C-3PO and R2-D2, they actually gave them personality. We want you to have a relationship with a robot.”
With interest building, collectors have been bidding up prices for old toys. In January, an action figure of the bounty hunter Boba Fett sold for 18,000 pounds (about $28,000), the most ever for a mass-produced “Star Wars” character, according to Vectis Auctions, based in Stockton-on-Tees, U.K., which handled the sale. A cardboard model of the “Star Wars” Death Star sold for $7,400 in June, more than twice the original estimate.
“The vintage toys are red hot right now,” said Kathy Taylor, who supervises “Star Wars” toy sales at Vectis. The auction house plans additional sales in October and December.
The most coveted items are those produced in small quantities or with some quirk that makes them rare, such as a variation in hair color or packaging, according to Steve Sansweet, a collector who runs the nonprofit Rancho Obi-Wan museum near Petaluma, Calif.
The “12 Back” figures, the original 12 characters from Kenner Products with their images on the back of the packaging, are particularly valuable. Unopened toys sell for much more than ones that were played with.
Brian’s Toys, an online retailer specializing in vintage toys, has 11 of the “12 Backs” for sale, ranging in price from $600 for an Obi-Wan Kenobi to $3,000 for a Princess Leia. The condition of a toy and packaging, graded by a service called Action Figure Authority, can have more influence on the price than the popularity of the actual character.
Other rare items include 1978 action figures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi with “double telescoping” lightsabers that extended twice as far as subsequent ones, and a 1980 Boba Fett prototype whose missile-firing backpack was eliminated out of safety concerns.
“That’s the dream, to get a rocket-firing Boba Fett,” said Daniel Pickett, a Los Angeles collector who runs actionfigureinsider.com.
Mike Collier watched intently as a “Star Wars” action figure came up for sale on eBay last month at more than $10,000. It was a vinyl-caped Jawa from 1978, less than four inches tall, just like the one he’d bought for almost $5,000 two years ago.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty impressive,’ ” said Collier, 50, a Los Angeles TV producer whose “Star Wars” collection numbers in the hundreds of items. “The old characters will not just die off.”
What makes Collier’s vinyl-caped Jawa so valuable was that it was discontinued. Some consumers griped that the cape looked fake and a cloth one was added. Fans like Collier will be out in force Friday, searching store shelves and reliving their childhoods.
Although he doesn’t expect to see the same kind of appreciation on the current toys, Collier said he’ll still be looking.
“You have to pick through the different collections,” he said. “You’ll find that diamond in the rough.”