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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Programming BB-8: Our best Christmas present gets better

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The best Christmas gift in our house this year was, without a doubt, the $150 Sphero BB-8 app-controlled droid. Resembling the cute new robot from the new “Star Wars” movie, the Sphero BB-8 is a rolling ball that you control from your iPhone or iPad.

It’s pretty adorable. Because the electronics are entirely enclosed in the toy’s rugged shell (it charges via an inductive charging base), it can’t really make noise—but the BB-8 iOS app makes all the noises the droid makes in the film, and the effect works. And because a computer is in charge of remote-controlling your toy robot instead of a cheap remote control with a couple of AA batteries, things can get interesting quickly.

The BB-8 app features not just a basic driving mode, but a menu of behaviors that trigger specific movements and patterns in BB-8. There’s also a patrol mode that moves BB-8 independent of human control.

Still, after playing with the toy for a few hours, I started to wonder if we would quickly become bored with it because of the limited number of these behaviors. (There are only so many times you can menace the family cat with a rolling ball droid, after all.) That’s when James Thomson posted a link on Twitter to an app called Tickle.

Tickle uses a visual programming approach similar to the style they teach kids using apps like Scratch or in the Hour of Code program. Both of my kids have spent a lot of time with those sorts of tools, so they know them well.

But Tickle is built to let you program robots, including BB-8. And not just basic Logo turtle movements. Tickle has access to numerous hardware features on BB-8. You can set the color of the robot’s internal LED lighting to pretty much any one you want. You can set conditional behavior if the BB-8 detects that it has collided with an object. You can make the droid nod or shake its head and vibrate. There’s a surprising amount of stuff there.

So what was already a pretty great Christmas gift has become even better. Roll on, little ball droid.

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