Robotic toy maker Sphero is really on a roll at the moment.
Its BB-8 Star Wars ball bot (despite being a pain to control) was the must-have toy of Christmas 2015, but its latest creation is on a whole other level. Taking advantage of another Disney license, this summer it’ll release a robotic “Ultimate” Lightning McQueen toy, based on the sportscar star of Pixar’s Cars franchise. And it’s fantastic.
Sphero CEO Paul Berberian is calling McQueen “the most advanced robotic toy ever” and it’s hard to argue with the claim. Screeching into shops alongside the cinematic release of the Cars 3 movie, Sphero’s ‘Ultimate Lightning McQueen’ toy is crammed full of smart tech features.
Designed by a team of 40 people (with help from key Pixar staff) over the last 18 months, it’s a perfect recreation of the character. McQueen isn’t just a remote controlled car (though he’s a very good one at that), but an animated, speaking, expressive one as well.
The car has 6 motors in it – not just for steering, but for 'emotive' suspension and an animatronic mouth, too. With actor Owen Wilson reprising his movie role to voice the toy, and featuring an LCD windscreen providing dynamically animated eyes, Sphero’s McQueen has been furnished with real personality, shuffling, leaning and rising on his suspension exactly like his silver screen counterpart. You can’t help but smile as he careens around corners – it’s the closest a licensed toy has come to bringing to life the character that inspired it.
The attention to detail is fantastic – animated in Maya before being translated into robotic movements, McQueen has a moving mouth on his rubbery front bumper, speaks 40 phrases from a built in speaker and reacts to touch, leaning as you brush against five capacitive touch panels spread across his body. Even his head and taillights are smart, with ambient lighting sensors seeing them kick in automatically in low-light situations.
McQueen's durability will be one area that will need closer examination. When asked if the Cars toy could be used out in the open, away from smooth indoor surfaces, Sphero's representatives encouraged us not to take that chance. Though it's built to take a beating, don't expect to take McQueen off-road like you would a traditional RC car. Also, with the animated mouth also acting as the front bumper, it'll be interesting to see whether it can survive the head-on collisions the toddlers of the world are sure to submit it to.
App controlled over a Bluetooth connection, the Ultimate Lightning McQueen toy makes for a great racing car, too – especially compared to its Sphero stablemate, the Star Wars BB-8, which seemed to require real Jedi force powers just to get it to move in a straight line.
Squeezing a respectable 40 minutes of play time out of a two hour charge, he’s got a 30 meter range and a top speed of 6mph. Controls take the form of a digital thumbstick through your phone or tablet’s touchscreen, meaning he’ll be easy to steer for anyone that’s picked up a console game pad before. We had him speeding along with his boost function and pulling off donut spins within a few minutes during our demo session. There’s a far gentler learning curve here than with Sphero’s earlier, more tricky to master, toys.
Just like BB-8 before him, Lightning McQueen has a range of app functions beyond steering. Pop him into “Drive In” movie mode, fire up your copy of the Cars films on the telly, and Ultimate Lightning McQueen will react to the onscreen action, talking up his best moments and saying hello to his petrol-headed friends.
A “ghost car” racing mode will also be ready at launch, along with an animation studio that lets you queue up McQueen’s preset phrases and movements into a script to be performed. There’s also a “pit stop” app minigame that the car interacts with, allowing McQueen to help the player recognise which car component is needed to fix up the motors waiting to get back on the road.
It’s one of the techiest toys we’ve ever seen then, but it comes with a price tag to match. In the US you’ll play $299.99, and that’s mirrored in the UK by a £299.99 price (Australian and global prices to follow). It may be one to track once the Black Friday sales rush picks up.
That’s a lot of money to spend on a toy for the kiddies, but you can see where every penny goes. If you want to be the most-loved parent on the block, it’s a safe bet this Christmas.