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Sphero Patent Suggests Magnetic Head for BB-8 Droid

Maker News Robotics Technology
Patent for Sphero

A 2014 patent submitted by employees of Sphero details a Sphero-like device working with a “magnetically coupled accessory.” The device works by using a magnetic tip on the existing upward-facing arm within the Sphero, allowing it to create a temporary attachment to a magnetic half-dome that slides along its Teflon-coated surface.

This patent details a "magnetically coupled accessory" for Sphero's familiar rolling toy design.
This patent details a “magnetically coupled accessory” for Sphero’s familiar rolling toy design.

The patent is of special interest to those of us who have wondered how the BB-8 droid in the upcoming Star Wars film was made to work as a real-life remote-controlled prop. After later learning that the filmmakers contracted Sphero to work on the mechanics of BB-8, many have speculated that the prop is simply a scaled up version of the familiar toy. As a proof of concept, Make: contributor Christian Poulsen whipped up a BB-8 inspired Sphero modification with only a little effort.

But is this patent really an inside peek at the workings of the film prop used for the Star Wars movie? It seems more likely that it’s simply detailing the toy version of BB-8 that is certain to hit store shelves in time for the movie’s holiday release. In fact, Sphero already has a teaser page up for what is likely to be their toy BB-8.

The BB-8 droid from Star Wars takes the stage at a Star Wars Celebration event in Anaheim.
The BB-8 droid from Star Wars takes the stage at a Star Wars Celebration event in Anaheim.

And while I can’t imagine that the inner workings of the BB-8 prop are a far cry from the system described in Sphero’s patent, one telltale difference is the prop’s ability to tilt its head and spin its head with precise control. The patent seemingly makes no mention of these capabilities (though patent language is notoriously opaque), leading me to wonder if they’ll be missing from the toy as well.

Let us know what you think of the patent design. Is this the end of the story or just another piece of the puzzle?

5 thoughts on “Sphero Patent Suggests Magnetic Head for BB-8 Droid

  1. Jotham Mcmillan says:

    I’m sure it’s mainly for the toy. I would assume that they achieved greater capability with the prop by using multiple magnets with opposing fields. This would enable spinning the head. I’m not sure how they would achieve tilt without a combination of opposing magnets attached to linear servos to push the head up as needed. Coordinating all that would seem a bit tricky to me. Hopefully they will have a prop teardown someday!

  2. Ian Page-Echols says:

    The two ways I see to tilt and turn the head are either having something physically moving and turning inside the sphere and just connecting the two together via magnets, or, the elegant and probably far more complex way: many electromagnets being turned on and off in order to turn and tilt the head. I’m guessing they have something inside the body that tilts and turns.

  3. Anaerin says:

    They got a patent on it? Despite it being an obvious rip-off of this XKCD strip from 2008?

    1. Aaron says:

      I agree. I’ve been working on this system on my own for a year, and have been publishing to the web the results. They should never have gotten a patent on it, because it is not new or novel. The concept has been around for some time now.

    2. Donald Bell says:

      For what it’s worth, the XKCD design uses four omniwheels, while the Sphero design uses two standard wheels. It also has an EeePC inside. It’s also a comic. Prior art is useful for patent disputes, but publishing a webcomic does not a patent make.

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I make stuff, play music, and sometimes make stuff that plays music. Fan of donuts, Arduino, BEAM robotics, skateboarding, Buckminster Fuller, and blinking lights.

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