Friday, February 19, 2010

Artoo Detoo It Is You! It Is You!

I was thinking of calling this post "Toy Story 3" as it's about a particularly cool toy, and two earlier posts about another of my favorite toys were imaginatively entitled Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Of course, the other two titles doubled as references to the two animated Disney movies whose respective names they stole (I mean "borrowed") but there never was a Toy Story 3, which would make that title inconsistent. On the other hand, I suppose I could have gone with that title and, should Disney ever actually release a Toy Story 3, I could have sued them for copyright or trademark infringement or some such thing and been set for life. Keep your banner ads. That's how to make money blogging!

But, no. One of the prime directives of this blog is to keep things fresh and innovative (which is why I'm writing about a toy for the third time now) so I decided to break with precedent and come up with a new, fresh, clever title for this post. For those of you who are not quite so nerdy as myself, I should explain that the title of today's post is, in fact, a reference to the very first Star Wars movie (appropriately known as "Episode IV"). It's the line spoken by See Threepio when he and Artoo Detoo are reunited in the bowels of the Jawa sandcrawler, after having been separated in the Tatooine desert.

Artoo Detoo (or R2-D2 for the more technically inclined) is one of my top three favorite robots of all time, right up there with Forbidden Planet's Robbie and the generically named "Robot" from Lost In Space. For one thing, I prefer robots that are designed not to look like mechanical people. Of my three favorite robots, Robbie is most guilty of this faux-pas. He's a biped with arms, kind of looks like an astronaut in some kind of weird space suit, but at least he doesn't have anything resembling a human face. In fact, above the arms, he looks a bit like an old Wurlitzer jukebox. I've always been a sucker for colorful blinking lights.

The Robinson family's Robot is a little better. He still has sort of a bipedal form, but at least he doesn't have articulated legs and instead rolls around on what I presume are treads. That to me seems far more likely. His "head" looks even less human than Robbie's, and also features those seductive blinking lights, and you have to laugh at the comical way in which he waves his accordion arms around, crying "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"

Then there's R2-D2, who looks nothing at all like we humanoids. If anything, he looks like some sort of electronic trash can or fire hydrant, and he doesn't even talk - well, okay, he does, but not in any manner that movie-goers can decipher. He beeps, he whistles, he hoots and sometimes emits what sounds suspiciously like electronic farts and, surprisingly, he manages to do so with expression. You may not understand exactly what he's saying, but you can definitely tell whether he's pleased, excited, annoyed or scared dischargeless.

Imagine my joy when I learned, one day, that the Hasbro toy company had created a toy R2-D2. "Big deal" you say, "there are lots of toy Artoos out there". Very true, but this is the toy Artoo. Hasbro officially calls it the "Star Wars R2-D2 Interactive Astromech Droid" and the key word here is "Interactive". This thing is almost a miniature clone of the beloved droid from the movies. He understands and obeys voice commands. He answers back. He can see and navigate around obstacles. He plays games. He guards your room. Heck, he can even bring you a cold one!

The moment I learned about this toy, I got a serious case of the "I Wants". Trouble is, I was approximately 42 years old at the time and, as neat as Hasbro's toy is, it's still a toy - as in "designed for kids". Of course, there are adult collectors of toys, but I'm not really a collector. I just have a weakness for certain things that push my inner "cool" button. This is one of those. As toys go, it's also kind of expensive. It retailed for $US 120 when I first learned of it, and the price has climbed since then - mostly, I suspect, because Hasbro no longer makes them. As usual, practicality beat my inner geek into submission and I contented myself with simply drooling over magazine and internet ads.

Fortunately, I also happen to be married to a woman who knows me all too well (and stays married to me anyway) and it was this same woman who decided to get me Hasbro's interactive R2-D2 for Father's Day that year (and, no, the irony is not lost on me).

My interactive Artoo stands about 18 inches tall; a pretty good size for a toy. The electronic "eye" on his dome lights up and blinks red and blue. His dome projector also lights up. The dome rotates almost all the way around. He beeps, chirps, hoots, whistles (and farts) just like his movie counterpart, and he rolls along on the floor with the ability to turn left or right and even back up. All this takes power, and no miserly amount at that. Artoo uses two sets of batteries; four D cells for motor control and movement, and four AA batteries to control the lights and the logic boards. At least the batteries do last a good long time before needing replacement. With all the batteries installed, he's a fairly hefty little dude, weighing in at about five pounds.

Artoo comes equipped with navigational sensors that allow him to see where he's going, and an infrared sensor for distinguishing people and pets (i.e. warm bodies) from inanimate objects. He has a microphone (the better to hear you with, my dear) and pressure or resistance sensors that allow him to detect if something is impeding his movement.

Artoo's voice recognition software is truly impressive. He recognizes speech right out of the box without any need of training, regardless of whether the speaker is a five-year-old girl, a forty-two-year-old man, or a five-year-old girl in a forty-two-year-old man's body ... but perhaps I've said too much. He recognizes over fifty spoken commands, names and phrases. You can tell him to move or to stay put. When he's moving, you can tell him to go in specific directions or just have him "patrol" the room. You can tell him to talk or to be quiet. Tell him to play the message (the one that he's carrying in his rusty innards) and he'll light up his projector and play Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi (sound only - no holographics). You can ask him if he remembers various Star Wars characters and he will indicate that he does, indeed, remember them as well as what he thinks of them, by his reactions. Ask him about See Threepio and he'll chirp happily. Ask him about Darth Vader and he'll scream and shudder.

Speaking of emotional responses, Artoo's software emulates his sometimes stubborn and rebellious personality as seen in the movies. He can get temperamental and sometimes intentionally ignores you. You can tell when he's sulking because his sensor eye goes from blue to red. Once I let him roll off a small ledge, only about 3 inches high but enough that he fell over onto his side, and he let out a plaintiff electronic whine. If he gets too uncooperative, you can tell him to behave himself.

Watching Artoo explore a room is truly fascinating. He won't run into walls or large obstacles, stopping as he nears them and then turning and heading off in a new direction. He can't see low objects like the edges of carpets and he sometimes misses narrow objects like chair legs. If he does miss something and bumps into it, he senses the obstruction and backs away, again heading off in some other direction.

His inability to see ground-level objects also makes him susceptible to rolling down stairways or off table edges, a practice which shortens his useful life considerably and definitely voids his warranty, so he comes with a button that prevents him from rolling when you want him to stay put. This is not a mechanical inhibitor. It's a software inhibitor. Artoo's programming tells him not to move under any circumstances when his movement inhibitor button is set to "engaged", not unlike the restraining bolt used in the movies, and this is one command he always obeys. In fact, if you tell him to go somewhere or to patrol the room with the movement inhibitor engaged, he'll simply shake his head at you, as if to say "I can't, stupid!"

Artoo's sensors, motors and software also give him the ability to perform certain semi-useful functions. For example, he can act as a room sentry, standing soundless and motionless, looking for all the world as though he were powered off. The moment he detects any sound or movement, however, he comes alive, shines his projector light on the intruder and sounds a shrill alarm.

He can also play games such as "Light Tag" or "Spin the Droid". When playing Light Tag, Artoo will count to ten, giving all the people in the room time to go and stand somewhere. He will then patrol the room, specifically looking for warm bodies with his I/R sensor. When he finds someone, he stops and shines his projector light on them as if to say, "Hah! Gotcha!" He can also sing and dance, chirping out well-known Star Wars music, such as the Cantina Band theme, and shuffling back and forth to the beat.

I'm amazed at the technology that's gone into Hasbro's "plaything". I've read several anecdotes about the many problems that George Lucas and crew had with the R2-D2 prop whilst filming the original Star Wars trilogy. The thing was constantly falling over, banging into walls and just plain malfunctioning. Lucas probably would have given his eye teeth for a prop that was capable of just a fraction of the things that Hasbro's toy can do.

For my fellow techno-geeks that want to know more about the firmware that powers this little guy and just what it can do, you can find out much more at this link:

If you'd like to see one disassembled in order to find out what makes it tick, try this link:;leftCol

As for the rest of you, if you'd just like to see the little guy in action, try the video below. If you're impressed and want to see more, YouTube has many more like it.

So you see, coming back full-circle to the title of this post, I think it more than appropriate. From the moment you switch on Hasbro's Interactive R2-D2 and watch it come to life, you almost forget that it's a toy and might just find yourself exclaiming "Artoo Detoo, it is you! It is you!"


Tubes said...

Halmanator said...

Damn! Missed my chance!