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Pixar’s “Cars” comes home as Sphero builds a real Lightning McQueen

When’s the last time you got to meet a character from a movie? Hey, when’s the first time? Sphero maker Orbotix has brought one of Pixar’s visions to life, and wow is it impressive.

There’s something you need to know about the guy writing this article. Hi, I’m Leigh, and I’m a bit of a kid at heart. Actually, I’m a lot of a kid at heart, and anyone who knows me knows full well that I love animated movies.

Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli; you name it, there’s a good chance I’ve seen it, and possibly even collected some of the merch, if not more than I probably should have. There are plush toys in our home from “Lilo & Stitch” and just about every other major Disney film, a semi-robotic toy of Wall-E, and a pillow shaped like Dumbo’s head.

I dabble in my own animation — hand-drawn and computer-based, some of which even blends the styles — but like many kids at heart, I’m in love with animated tales, and Pixar tends to sit next to Disney at the top of that pile.

It’s hard to pick favourites, though both “Lilo & Stitch”, “Big Hero 6”, “Wall-E”, “Tangled”, and “Fantasia”, and “Aladdin”, and “Zootopia” rank in a field it’s impossible to pick favourites in, and like many, I hold a special place in my heart for “Cars”.

While it’s probably been the most exploited film with Disney getting involved with its own franchises, some of which truly feel direct to DVD, the original “Cars” grabbed me, simply because there was so much in it, from the car-inspired landscapes, the great voice acting, the tiny VW Bugs flying around like bugs, and that eternal question: if cars are always running around, are we essentially just watching track and field events on the big screen? *cue “Chariots of Fire” theme by Vangelis*

Getting into “Cars” is easy enough: it’s been out on Blu-ray, DVD, and iTunes for ages, and with another sequel on the way to the movies in “Cars 3” hoping to put away whatever the hell “Cars 2” was — we don’t speak about that film, even if it had some great voice talent in it — there’s about to be more Cars-mania, but toys from animated movies aren’t always good.

Simply put, how do you capture the essence of what makes an animated character animated without a sense of animation?

Disney has been working with Sphero (formerly Orbotix) for a while, and if you’ve ever picked up or seen the BB-8 rolling droid in a store, you know its work.

The company worked with Disney for at least one variations of Star Wars’ BB-8, and though much was handled and control by a person dressed up in a blue screen costume, there is an actual robotic BB-8 droid out there, similar to the one you can take home.

Robotic toys are an area Sphero has been working in for ages, too, developing the first Sphero to get kids into robots and programming with a small controllable ball that can follow patterns, shapes, and basically turn into your very own Etch-a-Sketch simply by using your phone or tablet to control it.

Sphero goes back a good five or six years or so, and in that time we’ve seen several generations of robotic ball and then some, with extensions on that concept in Ollie and of course the BB-8 Star Wars tie-in.

For its latest project, it has teamed up with Disney and Pixar for a robotic version of Cars’ Lightning McQueen, the main character from Cars, and wow, this isn’t your ordinary car toy.

Let’s start with the basics, because this looks like the best toy you’re ever going to set eyes on, with details right from the movie, lips around a mouth, and even before you turn the car on, it looks the part, and feels it too, weighing more than most toys.

But that’s because it’s not your regular toy, and it’s not even a remote control car.

Sphero’s Ultimate Lightning McQueen is a complicated robot that happens to look like a remote control car, bringing together three processors and six motors, the latter of which controls the mouth at the front, one for steering, two for the front tires, and two for a level of emotive suspension, to make Lightning respond like he would in the movie.

That special suspension means Lightning can do tricks like in the movie, things remote control cars aren’t designed to do, because as we said, this isn’t a remote control car.

Despite this, you’ll be using him in many ways like one, with driving, racing, drifting, and more, as Sphero has brought in tires made for hard and soft surfaces, while also making it possible to use him at night with an ambient light sensor to adjust the front and rear LEDs based on light in the room.

There’s also a loud speaker inside to let Lightning talk — and from the sound of things, it’s Owen — and it’s quite loud, and certainly louder than the BB-8 voice that came from your own phone, but really the whole attention will be on Lightning’s front.

That’s because there’s a real face with real eyes reflected under a windscreen that change and make him seem as animated as the real thing.

His mouth helps complete that, with silicone lips that move as Lightning speaks, an effect that is as transfixing as it is impressive, simply because when’s the last time or even the first time that a computer animated character really jumped off the screen in a way that looked the part?

“From the beginning, we wanted to make Ultimate Lightning McQueen feel as real as he does in the film,” said Paul Berberian, Sphero’s CEO.

“In order to create a scaled down version of his big personality, we worked closely with the team at Pixar to ensure we were getting his nuances just right , such as leaning into turns and expressive facial and body movements,” he said.

And it worked, creating what is easily the most life-like toy of anything close to what Pixar has put on the screen.

Toys rarely actively capture that sense of life because they can’t twist and change to match the complex animated structures, and so you’re left with structures that look and feel like the plastic blocks we think of them as.

But robots can do more, and with the right hardware underneath, we’re talking a lot more.

Sure, Sphero’s Lightning McQueen can race around and let you take him for a drive day and night, though the battery only lasts 40 minutes after two hours of charge, but the charge port’s use of a fuel tank is cute and hugely appropriate, as Cars was with all of the design elements.

Aside from the racing, he also does more, and there are a few games, an acting studio to bring animations from the movie to life, a touch game using touch sensors in the car, and a “Watch With Me” mode that will let you watch Cars with Lightning and have him respond to his favourite bits and pieces.

All up, it is without doubt one of the coolest devices we’ve ever seen, with an attention to detail that is like the Pixar character walking out of the big screen and over to your living room, and is about as close as we get to seeing characters do anything like this.

“How do you bring a scaled down version of McQueen in an object to feel as real and alive as he does in the film?” posed Jay Ward, Creative Director for Disney and Pixar’s “Cars” films, who worked with Sphero to bring Lightning to life.

“There’s a lot of things going on in that car that’s invisible, and that’s good because you’re actually just enjoying McQueen being alive and talking to you, and that’s difficult to do,” he said.

Sphero and Disney’s Ultimate Lightning McQueen will be in stores mid-June, roughly the same time as “Cars 3” hits cinemas from June 16, hitting stores like EB Games and Zing for a suggested retail price of $499, with pre-orders starting now.

And yes, this will probably be one of the hottest Christmas presents, possibly alongside an early home release for Cars 3. There, we’ve said it.

No, smoke doesn’t come out of the back. You’ll have to bring your own if you want a shot like this.
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