Friday, 26 February 2016




Last year, a little movie came out that you might have heard of.

You know, if you were really paying attention, you might have caught a whisper. Source.

I jest, of course. Disney’s marketing kicked into high gear last year to make sure that everyone was excited about the new Star Wars movie. A lot of the marketing focused on BB-8, the adorable new droid starring in the film, who premiered in the first teaser released in November 2014.

It doesn't even have cheeks and I want to pinch them. Source.

 Of course, people got excited about BB-8. Somehow, the filmmakers had made a droid even cuter than R2-D2. And BB-8 had a cool, if apparently impractical, design. BB-8’s lower body is a sphere, the head a small dome perched on top. As the body rolls, the head stays perfectly in place. It was a pretty weird design but hey, with CGI you can produce anything, no matter how physically impossible, so people were mostly nonplussed.

Then, during the Star Wars Celebration 2015, BB-8 rolled out on stage.

People went nuts. It had actually already been confirmed, in December 2014, that BB-8 was a physical prop but I don’t think people were really expecting it to actually be able to move autonomously. Somehow, this weird little thing could move, look around and interact with the world without its head falling off. The Internet being the Internet, the race was on to figure out how BB-8 works.

With all of nerddom bent on solving this problem, we must know by now, right? Not so much. Disney has never confirmed exactly how BB-8 works so we’re still just guessing.

People pretty quickly connected BB-8 with the Sphero, another spherical rolling robot. This seemed like a pretty safe guess, since Disney had actually contributed funds to start the company behind it. However, Sphero didn’t have a head on top, which is the truly amazing part of BB-8, and Lucasfilm released a statement saying that, in fact, Sphero’s mechanism was not used because it didn’t produce the expressiveness that BB-8 demanded.

The Sphero. Source

So, how does BB-8 work? Magic? Giant hamster ball? (Don’t laugh, it was suggested!). The best guess comes from, which is run by Carlos S├ínchez and Emilio Gelardo.

They discovered a patent filed by Disney for a magnetic spherical balancing robot drive. One of the descriptions pretty closely matches BB-8. The body rolls using omni wheels (wheels which can roll in any direction) and relies on accelerometers and gyroscopes to know its position in space. The body also has a mast inside, which swivels around as the body moves so the head can reposition itself (for a video of how it works, click here). How does the head stick to the mast? That’s still the biggest question but the general consensus is magnets.

BB-8 drive mechanisms (Copyright and trademark Lucasfilm Ltd, all rights reserved. Image: Carlos Sanchez and Emilio Gelardo / Source

This is all very cool but is all this pop culture and techy stuff really relevant to the museum world? I think so. Museums are unique because of their focus on objects but lately, especially with the rise of digitization, we’ve been wondering how much the physical object really matters. Can people form the same connection from just looking at a picture or a digital model?

I think BB-8 and the broader Star Wars movie proves how much the object still matters. It would have been far easier for the filmmakers to just use CGI to create BB-8, just as it would have been easier for them to skip many of the physical effects they used. But they didn’t. They took the time to make a functioning prop. They played with it. They innovated. They poured their hearts and souls into BB-8. And people responded. They got excited. They got curious. They started theorizing how it worked and sharing ideas. They researched. They built websites. They built working models. None of that would have happened if BB-8 had been just a collection of pixels on a screen.

CGI creates marvels. But objects, physical objects, still have the ability to connect with people in a special way. BB-8 would always have been cute. But the magic happened when we found out it was real.

Also, when tired MMSt students misspoke the name. That was pretty magical, too. Credit: Olivia Gawron


Want to try making one of your own?

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