Sphero’s Lightning McQueen Cars 3 toy is the most advanced movie tie-in yet
Sphero is a company that’s usually associated with spherical, educational robots, aimed at helping kids get used to the fundamentals of programming while delivering a dollop of fun at the same time, but it’s been branching out lately.
Last year it secured the license to produce the official BB-8 Star Wars robot and the units flew off the shelves; this year, it’s applying its robotic expertise to Cars 3 and its eponymous hero, Lightning McQueen.
As you’d expect of any Sphero product, its Lightning McQueen car is packed with sophisticated robotic tech, but on the surface, it’s a much more traditional looking “toy” than its previous products. This is, fundamentally, a remote controlled car – a highly advanced one – but a remote controlled car nonetheless. There’s no programmability to speak of; not when it comes to movement anyway.
So what makes Sphero’s McQueen special? What secret sauce does Sphero bring to bear here? Well, the key is in the articulated, robotic motors that control Lightning’s suspension and movement. Under his brightly coloured skin are six motors, including one that lip-syncs the car’s rubberised mouth.
With the help of Disney Pixar’s animators, Sphero has contrived to make this robot’s movements mimic almost exactly to those of the character on-screen. He can tilt, rise up in excitement on his suspension or quirk sideways quizzically, and with four capacitive touch panels built into the doors, bonnet and roof, he can respond to touch as well.[gallery:0]
That’s not all, of course. Sphero is famed for its app-controlled robots and Lightning McQueen is no different, with responsive remote controls and a number of interactive games and other features available through the iOS or Android app.
Kids (and their parents) can prompt – and script – sound effects and play games within the app, and participate in preprogrammed races; and, just as BB-8 did last year, Lightning will also watch the original Cars movie with you and react with pithy comments along the way. Later on, he’ll also be able to do the same with Cars 2 and Cars 3.
You wanna drive with me?
This is all good stuff, but what you want to know is how he drives, right? Well, that’s as impressive as everything else about this robotic toy. The controls feel a little odd at first. With most remote-controlled cars you’d push the stick forwards to accelerate and move the stick left and right to steer left and right. Here, the controls are absolute: push up on the onscreen joystick and he drives away from you, pull down and he spins around and drives straight back; right and left and he goes in that direction directly.
As I said, it’s odd and, occasionally, the controls get off-centre and things go a little haywire. Fortunately, it’s easy to fix that: pop the car down pointing away from you, hit the reset button on the screen and all’s back to normal.[gallery:4]
And once you’ve got used to the controls, Lightning is a doddle to drive. You’ll be drifting around the living room floor, spinning on a sixpence and generally creating domestic havoc at speeds of up to 6mph (hold onto your hat) in no time flat. Just make sure the cat’s in the other room when you do it.
Want to know what’s most impressive about how this little car drives, though? It’s Lightning McQueen’s ability to drift, turn and spin even on medium pile carpet. He’s at his most agile on hard floors, of course, but though he slows down when you drop him onto a textile surface, Lightning McQueen remains responsive and fun to drive in most situations.[gallery:13] [gallery:9]
Lightning McQueen review: Verdict
In Sphero’s Lightning McQueen, robotics, smartphone technology and movies come together in a compelling package that will delight fans of the Cars series and lovers of technology alike. I, for one, know a little boy who would sell his own grandparents to get hold of one.
The problem is that, thanks to all that exotic technology and a limited manufacturing run, Lightning is expensive: £300 to be precise, which is an awful lot to ask for such a thing. At that price, I doubt many parents will be willing to stump up the funds, no matter how good he is.