Is BB-8 from new Star Wars really a bit like a Segway?

Iconic Star Wars robots R2D2 and C3PO are joined by self-balancing robo-ball droid BB-8 in the upcoming movie The Force Awakens.

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But is BB-8 really “a bit like a Segway” as a headline-hungry news media seem keen to claim? In link-bait laden articles these days it seems everything is a Segway even when it is not.

Unlike just about every other latest thing said to be the freshly spawned love-child of a Segway and a whatever, BB-8 is indeed more than just a little like a Segway Personal Transporter (PT) – and here’s why.

Looking back to one of the original patents that underpin the Segway PT there’s an illustration of a variant that rides on a “uniball” just as BB-8 does. This uniball version of what would soon be christened the Segway PT is just one of numerous illustrated variants. In addition to the standard Segway PT configuration of two non-tandem wheels and a handlebar, there are handlebar-less variations similar to products now becoming known as ‘hover boards’ (i.e. Hovertrax, Veloboard, Glideboard, etc), and also single wheeled electric unicycles (i.e. SoloWheel, Ninebot One, Airwheel, etc).

Excerpts from one of Dean Kamen's original patents underpinning the Segway PT showing uniball and one-wheeled variants, and describing uses ranging from transporting people to educational toys.

Excerpts from one of Dean Kamen’s original patents underpinning the Segway PT showing uniball and one-wheeled variants, and describing intended uses ranging from transporting people to small educational toys.

Intended uses for the variants described in the patent range from transporting people to scaled-down educational toys. Last year, Segway, Inc. and DEKA Research pursued legal action through the International Trace Commission against a group of Chinese patent infringers (Ninebot, FreeGo, EcoBoomer, RobStep). While the corporate merger of Segway and Ninebot brought an end to the action against Ninebot, action continues against other infringers, and if successful it is likely newer infringers such as Airwheel will be next on Segway, Inc.’s hit list.

Back to Star Wars: today you can buy Sphereo’s BB-8: Hands on the best Start Wars toy ever (be sure to check out the video in this link). This is a real-life, smartphone controlled rolling ball robot complete with a “head” on top that stays in place as the spherical body rolls around the room – just like BB-8 in the upcoming movie. WIRED has an article about how the physics of this toy works.

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Spereo was not the first Segway-inspire kids toy. Here’s a very rare, seldom seen brochure for the very first: the P-BOT by Robosapien-maker WowWee, never quite made it to market release. While P-BOT was supposed to be short for P.E.A.B.O.T, maybe that ‘pee-bot’ name was a poor choice in the sensitive US marketplace?

P-Bot

In any case, P-BOT did use officially licensed SmartMotion technology from Segway, Inc. More recently, a number of other self-balancing toys have gone on sale, including MiP and the awesome MiPosaur (what kid wouldn’t want a self-balancing wheeled dinosaur!) from WowWee, and the flexible, build-your-own Lego Mindstorm kit.

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Nor is Spereo the first remote controlled rolling-ball. Our favourite predecessor is the somewhat evil-looking, all-seeing-eye security droid called a GroundBot by Rotundas. We featured this device in our original “A bit like a Segway” article.

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