I find the Star Wars inspired BB-8 robot toy developed by Sphero to be a delightful example of interactive industrial design. Remotely controlled by a smartphone, it embodies a personality which is both attractive and engaging. The toy is a remarkable feat of engineering, both in terms of industrial design and user experience. As an example, the robot’s head needed to be designed to exhibit even the slightest of movements relative to the rest of the body. If the head were simply fixed atop a rolling ball, the BB-8 would have been unable to convey the same depth or range of emotions to the user. In the end, it was decided to attach the head magnetically in order to allow it assume any position on it’s across the 360 degrees.
Moreover, the BB-8 makes friendly sounds in response to voice commands to the user which help endear it to a person really quickly. For example, when the user asks it to go to sleep, you will find the robot enunciating – in an electronic yet textured voice – no.
In an interview, Sphero’s founder said that this robot was born out of a spherical rolling ball that they had earlier created. But the challenges of creating the BB-8 were unique. To overcome these, he said that they first built a prototype to see how the actual product would behave, and whether it would do everything they expected it to. This immediately reminded me of generative prototyping in the paper by Holmquist. Just like Holmquict discusses, Sphero used a prototype to prove that the technology exists and is fully equipped to support the required interactions. At the same time, they did not let the prototype fool them into a bubble where every problem was solved: there still existed realistic design challenges which Sphero solved while building the actual product.