Sphero’s new interactive Cars figure features impressive robotics

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Sphero garnered lots of attention nearly two years ago for making an interactive BB-8 that could roll around the house and respond to The Force Awakens. Now the company is broadening its Disney partnership with a new toy based on the main character from Cars, Lightning McQueen. Kids can drive it around, play games, and hang out with the toy. Though it feels strange calling this thing a toy, because it’s almost too dismissive a term for a device that incorporates such serious robotics.

The product is controlled through a companion iOS / Android app over Bluetooth. Kids can play a mobile game that has them help in a virtual pitstop to outfit cars. Lightning McQueen, the actual toy, will speak up every now and again to offer advice or reminders of what tools to grab. Similarly to BB-8, kids can also watch Cars with the toy, and it’ll make comments throughout. Also, they can drive the car around the room and even drift, like in the movie. It has a 30-foot range, should last about 40 minutes while driving, and travels up to six mph.

Frankly, the actual play aspects of this car aren’t what’s intriguing about it. Instead, it’s the hardware and software effort behind the scenes. I only spent around 20 minutes demoing Lightning McQueen, and from that time, it was immediately clear how much robotics work went into this toy. This is Sphero’s first device to talk, for example, so the team had to figure out how to get its mouth to move in a semi-realistic manner. The designers ended up using a soft plastic so it’s malleable but also able to handle a head-on collision.

In addition to its moving mouth, the car has a trapezoidal 320 x 120 LCD screen that depicts McQueen’s eyes. These eyes had to be expressive to match whatever was being said, too. Sphero employs on-staff animators who specifically designed each animation of the car to ensure it looked accurate while live rendering in response to its use. There’s around 300 phrases on board.


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Image: Sphero

There’s really just a ton of hardware in this thing. It has five capacitive touch sensors installed, so it reacts to being touched. The Sphero team built a custom suspension that gives McQueen a sense of life, similarly to how it moves in the movie. There are five motors inside for pushing the car up and down and across the room, with a sixth motor inside its mouth. An ambient light sensor turns the headlights on and off, and the toy has three processors to run everything.

Overall, the product involves 450 parts and took 17 months to build. I will say the device isn’t totally seamless; you can still hear the motors crunch, and it makes some of those off-putting robotic clicking sounds. But generally, it wasn’t too distracting, and I’m impressed by what Sphero pulled together.

The toy will be out this summer for $299.

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