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By Thomas Wheeler

Hey, buddy, you wanna buy a droid? Nah, not one of those dinky little 3-3/4" toys. I mean a REAL droid. A genuine Astromech Droid. One of the most famous of all time -- R2-D2!

In past years, the big item from Hasbro for the Star Wars collection has generally either been a big whopping ship, such as the Naboo Royal Starship, or a 12" Action Figure with either a small (to scale) vessel or a large animal, such as a Dewback or a TaunTaun. Not this year.

This year it's an R2-D2 so big that it might be close to half-scale! It's advertised as being 15" tall, but I think it's a little taller. I haven't taken a ruler to it, though. It won't hold still long enough.

This "toy" has some pretty impressive technology built into it. It responds to vocal commands, and performs a fairly wide range of functions for what amounts to a robotic fireplug that can't speak English.

Kidding aside, though, the toy really is very impressive. Its two side legs have treaded wheels, and its center leg has a plastic ball wheel, not unlike what your computer mouse likely uses. This allows R2-D2 an excellent range of motion. Furthermore, that one usual bane of wheeled toys -- carpets -- poses no real obstacle to R2-D2. My apartment has what I would call "low shag" carpeting, and he can make it across that without any trouble at all. Although the instructions do say that he's intended for indoor use, and not to let him hear stairs or put him on tabletops without activating his "wheel lock" since his radar can't detect drop-offs like that.

R2-D2 has an impressive array of technology built into him, courtesy of Creature Labs Ltd. and Voice Signal Technologies Inc. Nicely hidden in R2's overall structure are navigation sensors with sound processing microphones and sonar, which help the droid "see" and locate objects; infrared location sensors for detecting heat sources and as such "life forms" (I keep wondering how a cat would react to this droid); a voice recognition response module, so R2 can "hear" your vocal commands, and more.

I'll admit I have no idea how voice recognition technology works. When one considers the wide range of dialects, accents, and voice pitches to be found among the English-speaking population of America -- I really just don't get it. But, I won't argue that it works.

The vocal commands that R2-D2 will respond to are fairly straightforward. Generally, to get his attention, you have to start any command by saying, "Hey, R2". Admittedly, this can get old pretty quick. Supposedly the droid "learns" over time so that this command is not always necessary. From there, the droid is automatically in "Companion Mode", and can be asked to do a number of things. If you say "Light Beam", for example, a surprisingly bright flashlight activates on his dome. I doubt you could use it in a basement to change a fuse, but it's certainly visible. You can also ask him, "Do you remember...?" and then end the question with a number of names of popular Star Wars characters, such as Anakin, Padme, Darth Vader, C-3PO, and

In "Command Mode", which you can have R2-D2 switch to with a verbal command, you can have the droid move forward a certain distance, turn around, or turn left and right. You can also program a set course into him.

In "Game Mode", you can activate R2-D2's "Room Sentry" function, play "Light Tag" with him (best in a large room with a group of people), "Dance Program", in which R2-D2 plays the popular Cantina Band music while moving across the floor in a back and forth pattern, and more.

There's a couple of downsides. The minor one is that R2-D2 is locked into his three-legged format. I'm certain that this is for stability when he's wheeling through the house. It would just be too easy to fall over in his two-legged format.

The other downside is that this thing has more attitude than it knows what to do with. Granted, so does the R2-D2 in the Star Wars movie. It's one thing to see it on the big screen. It's quite another to deal with it personally when this thing decides to publicly humiliate you by refusing to carry out the simplest of commands in front of your friends and just shakes its dome-head
"no" all the time.

This droid takes patience, and while I am hardly a master of that myself, can too easily imagine some little kids (the toy is recommended for ages 8 and up) getting fed up with this droid's reluctance and swatting it across the room.

I think part of R2's "reluctance" probably comes from memory overload from too many commands and/or questions in a row. There are ways to "discipline" your droid, but so far, they haven't proven terribly effective in my efforts. You can yell "Behave Yourself" at him, and he's supposed to settle down. If that doesn't work (and it generally doesn't), you can say "Timeout", and he's supposed to go into a corner and sulk until you're ready to play with him again. If all else fails, you're supposed to say "Reset system" and he's basically supposed to start over from scratch. In all honesty, I have yet to see any of these prove especially effective.

Ultimately, the one reasonably sure way to get R2-D2 to behave himself is to pick him up, turn him off, give him about half a minute, and then turn him back on again. This assumes you can catch him. Leave this droid alone for too long, and he starts wheeling his way across the room, sometimes shining his light beam, sometimes chattering away, sometimes playing music, and not always paying attention to where he's going. It's just a little freaky. My advice is to make darn sure you have this contraption turned off at night. Nobody needs to be wakened by a berserk droid dancing across the floor to the Cantina Band song flashing its beamlight in your face at 2:00 in the morning. If nothing else, this toy is a little too pricey for what would probably happen to it at that hour if it decided to get spontaneously feisty.

Some of the difficulties I've had with this droid may stem from my own living environment. As of this writing in mid-October, my apartment, thanks to over a year of basically surviving on online auctions and scattering boxes of stored toys everywhere in search of new auctionable goods, looks roughly like a Toys
"R" Us and a Mail Boxes Etc. blew up. There's barely enough room for either R2 or myself to navigate properly. Perhaps in a more open environment with more patient people, R2-D2 would fare better.

I would be remiss not to mention the packaging that R2-D2 came in, which is sheer creative genius. The box has been designed in such a way so that you're led to believe that you're not buying a Star Wars licensed product, but an actual Astromech Droid. The box doesn't even have the STAR WARS logo on it, except very tiny on the bottom, advertising the Star Wars Fan Club. They
even went so far as to put the phrase "Distributed on Earth by..." above the Hasbro logo.

The box reads "Industrial Automaton presents R2-D2", and is designed in such a way as to make lengthy reference to the droid's capabilities and interplanetary origins while playing down any notion that this is essentially a high-tech toy product. It's a superbly designed package with a level of creativity behind it that one sees far too seldom in the toy world these days, and whoever came up with it should be commended and congratulated.

R2-D2 does need batteries, and they're not included, so if you want him to work, you'll have to buy 4 "D" Batteries and 4 "AA" batteries. Oh yeah, he also has an (entirely manually activated) extension arm that's designed to be a "beverage holder", able to hold a 12 ounce aluminum can. Now if I could just find that command to get him to open the refridgerator....

R2-D2 is not inexpensive. He was $99.99 at Target. If I hadn't recently found a means of increasing my own finances for the time being, to a very safe level, I never would've gotten this, and even then I was a little reluctant. But I do try to save up for one treat for myself each year, around this time of year when the really cool toys start showing up, and this year, R2-D2 was it. If you're looking for a high-tech toy for the holidays, and you don't want to go the video game route, then R2-D2 might be just the ticket!