Friday, November 27, 2015

The Galactic Standard of Droid Excellence

Steve and Tommy write:

R2-D2 and BB-8 -- is the Star Wars galaxy (and toy aisle) of today big enough for the two of them? The parallels of over three decades of technological advances between the fictional universe the two characters inhabit and their debuts as interactive toys provide a curious historical perspective for collectors interested in that sort of thing.    

Aside from Darth Vader, there may not be another Star Wars character as "toyetic" or consumer product-compliant as Artoo. Just ask any R2-D2 focus collector or run a "R2-D2" keyword search on the Archive Database. Though certain vintage era concepts (such as these clocks, tape deck, and "Soapy R2-D2") sadly never came to fruition, Kenner was destined to produce a radio controlled toy based on the lovable wheel-propelled trashcan. It was an absolute no-brainer. What Star Wars-crazed youth wouldn't clamor for his own personal droid counterpart that they could roll around the house? As a logical step above a stationary 3.75" or 12" scale action figure it would be surefire top seller... in theory.

A photograph of an early mock-up incarnation of the toy (pictured to the right) depicts another vintage era example of the ingenious use of a calculator to depict state of the art technology.    

The above mock-up may relate more to a larger version of the Radio Controlled R2 that Kenner had internally prototyped. This item was featured in the special Star Wars exhibit in 2012 at the Les Arts Decoratifs wing of the Louvre. Much like the conceptual Yoda hand puppet and talking doll, it's difficult to concretely disambiguate the stages of these two R2 products, but it's likely that the larger version is an earlier prototype -- which would suggest that Kenner foresaw complaints about the toy being too small. Kenner also asked an outside company to create the prototypes for an even larger, full-sized version which incorporated an 8-track. This would have been used for events like Toy Fair. An unfinished example of one such prototype is pictured in a calendar the outside company produced several years back, along with the following description:

"[It] had an 8-track tape player . . . which played a recorded audio track. With the help of a sound activated switch and a Cadillac window motor, the head would turn back and forth and the light would flash in sync with the audio."

Though the final product ended up being smaller and simpler, there was quite a bit of excitement over the toy upon its release and Kenner was obviously proud of it. Contemporary accounts of the '78 Toy Fair all make mention of the Radio Controlled R2-D2, singling it out as a hot new toy. To reporters, it represented a technological achievement, if not a total realization of the promise of the films. They could at last see and interact with R2-D2, exactly like his film counterpart, controlling his actions and sharing his adventures. Star Wars had spread space toys and images of the future across all manner of consumer products that winter, and to attendees, it must have seemed like the future itself had arrived. Industry professionals (very accurately) predicted that it represented a shift in the marketplace. The birth of consumer electronics, targeting not just children but the entire family, meant more expensive toys and gadgets, and a greater variety of them. Or as the president of Coleco put it at that Toy Fair: "electronic everything you can possibly think of will be big in the years to come." Given the amount of new technology seen that Christmas, his prediction seemed to be coming true.

The Radio Controlled R2-D2 was one of the first such gadgets to enter this changing marketplace. It had a suggested retail price of $25.99, but retailed for as much as $34.99 that Christmas, as retailers looked to cash in on the Star Wars name. To put that into context, that was as much as the Millennium Falcon vehicle Kenner had created for its action figures. Unlike the Falcon, however, the Radio Controlled R2 could not be used with any of Kenner's other toys. It existed as a stand-alone novelty, with a high price point.

Stores ads for the radio controlled R2, showing its drop in price

Retailers and the public were thus cautious, despite the technological achievement the toy represented. This wasn't Christmas of 1977, when anything with the Star Wars name on it would sell. This was over a full year after the movie had been released. Kenner had already fulfilled their controversial Early Bird Certificates -- a promotion which had shocked everyone with its brashness -- and reporters all felt the need to speculate on the staying power of the brand itself. Even Kenner themselves seems to take the defense at times, as if needing to convince people that the public still wanted the toys which they were obviously still buying as fast as the company could produce them. More than that though, by this point in time, there are plenty of Star Wars products to choose from and the Radio Controlled R2 was not the only thing they could spent their money on. Aside from helping to usher in a new era of toys, there didn't seem to be a whole lot going for the toy. 

To make things worse, the future did not come cheaply. There was a hostility to some of the articles about toys that holiday season and the high price point of the Radio Controlled R2 didn't win it any friends.

Southeast Missourian, Dec. 8 1978

The average American spent just $88 per child on Christmas in 1977, so a $34.99 price tag was a significant amount, especially for merchandise from a movie which was over a year and a half old at that point. Analysts predicted that Christmas 1978 would see that number rise to almost $100 a child, which seemed like an astonishing amount at the time. Despite that, Kenner was still essentially asking parents to spend 30%-50% of their entire Christmas budget per child on one toy, which wasn't even compatible with any other Star Wars toys the child might already own.

What exactly made this toy so special?  

Not pictured is the wiry antenna which connects to the remote.

Having viewed the original commercial for the toy and attempted to deploy a semi-functional example in hand (the driving mechanism had long gone out of commission -- more on this later), the usage of quotation marks in the Radio Controlled R2's packaging to highlight special features is indicative of Kenner's need to reach for selling points:
  • "Chromed" head turns.
  • Red "EYE" lights up.
  • Electronic "BEEP" sounds

The "BEEP" sound can't really be described as a beep, but more of a discordant electronic screech that must have driven parents (and household pets) absolutely mad. This reality makes the various personal "beep" greetings incorporated into the instructions all the more amusing. With the instructions written from the perspective of R2, each aspect or "step" begins with a literal transcription of astromech-speak (from "Beep-boop-creleek" to "Boop-breeda-beep"). They certainly don't make instruction sheets like they used to, which is a shame.

Another detail of note is a memo regarding CB interference: "If your R2-D2(TM) works normally but from time to time does not respond properly, you are probably picking up CB interference."

It makes one wonder if that may have been the root of the problem with his "sensors" on Hoth.

The tenuous toy's limited mobility and temperamental electronics are clearly stated on the box, instruction sheet, and on a paper sleeve wrapped around R2 himself. There is even a red-lettered "DO NOT DROP" warning label adorning the droid's undercarriage. An additional insert contains a peculiar note describing R2 occasionally succumbing to a "sleep" position wherein body movements are disabled and remedied by a slight turn of the robot's head.

All of these precautionary details speak to the reality that this toy was wrought with issues. As mentioned in this earlier post from Ron, loads of them were returned to Kenner for mechanical repairs, apparently to the point that pallets of them remained in the employee store long past the initial release date.

The product's 180 day warranty protected consumers against "original factory defects in material and workmanship." It also provided unsatisfied customers factory repairs for out-of-warranty or receipt-less items "for a reasonable service fee." 

In an ostensible attempt to entice retailers to take some of the aforementioned overstock off of their hands, Kenner offered the Radio Controlled R2-D2 with an "Exclusive Adventure Obstacle Set," which was essentially a mat with a gameboard-like map on which R2 would hypothetically navigate (or in reality, likely meander aimlessly). It's doubtful one could get much adventure out of this thing. However, the fact that simple flat ground was literally an obstacle for the toy lends a surprising degree of accuracy to the description.

As mentioned in the database entry, it's unclear whether or not the mat involved some sort of game, but the graphics indicate the possibility of an objective. Interestingly, very few of these Special Offer RC R2s have surfaced, making it one of the scarcest of the already uncommon "Special Offer" toys from the original line.

At Toy Fair 1978, a reporter had asked Kenner spokesman Jim Block about the staying power of the brand. The Star Wars "fad" had already gone on for over a year and few thought it could possibly continue for much longer. Kenner had finally filled all of their Early Bird Certificate orders, and the thought at the time among industry people seemed to be that Kenner's good fortune couldn't continue. Sooner or later, the public would tire of the upstart space film and return to more traditional brands. As such, Block was asked to explain why consumers should spend their money on his company's products, including the Radio Controlled R2 and its high price. What made Star Wars so special? "It's forever," the Kenner spokesman responded. "Star Wars is forever."

Flash forward roughly 37 years and Block's reply is oddly prophetic. With the seventh film installment about to hit theaters and a myriad of new merchandise occupying toy aisles months in advance, the franchise is entering a second renaissance and its toys have as big a presence as ever. Only, R2-D2 isn't the only endearing dome-headed droid on the block anymore. Enter BB-8, the creamsicle-colored, spherical astromech that seemingly won over the hearts of the world the moment he first appeared onscreen in the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens.

While Target's Exclusive Remote Control BB-8 would admittedly be a fairer comparison given its targeted audience and price point, the toy that offers a much more compelling story is one developed and designed by the Boulder, Colorado based robot toymaker whose website assuredly claims that "One day every home will have a robot. It will be part companion and part helper. That robot will be built by Sphero."

The $149.99 "app-enabled droid" is undeniably cool and a ton of fun to play with. However, this post isn't really intended to serve as another toy review (for anyone seeking such, this one does a decent job). The company's official 150-Word Description of the product speaks to the remarkable leaps toy designers have made with their widgets:
"Over the years, the magic of Star Wars™ has always lived on screen and in our imaginations. Thanks to our advancements in technology, we’ve made it possible to bring a new part of Star Wars: The Force Awakens™ into your home.

Meet BB-8™ - the app-enabled Droid™ that's as authentic as it is advanced. BB-8 has something unlike any other robot - an adaptive personality that changes as you play. Based on your interactions, BB-8 will show a range of expressions and even perk up when you give voice commands. Set it to patrol and watch your Droid explore autonomously, make up your own adventure and guide BB-8 yourself, or create and view holographic recordings.

It’s now possible to explore the galaxy with your own trusty Astromech Droid by your side. BB-8 is more than a toy - it’s your companion."
Much like the character onscreen, Sphero's toy version was an instant sensation and has been accompanied by slick marketing that demonstrates just how much things have changed since the late 70s. Initial demand was extraordinary -- the toy sold out almost immediately upon its availability online (reportedly 13 minutes in on and by mid-morning on "Force Friday" from the Disney Store, Best Buy, and Sphero's own online store). Stock at retail stores dissipated with similar rapidity. Sphero evidently sold 100,000 units in a single day, and as of this writing is still awaiting new stock to fill orders.

They had better hope to have those units shipping out in time for Christmas or there'll be hell to pay.

The character and toy are inseparably intertwined with the notion of state-of-the-art gadgetry. Gone are the days of simple pleasures (and strictly clockwise head turns). In addition to the artsy promotional photographs and videos, the product's modern flavor is clearly manifested in its packaging.

Perhaps the most poignant bit of branding is a tagline lining the bottom of the box:


At first glance, this could be seen as a rather bold claim and easily dismissed. It also has a tone more akin to a luxury car or Dyson vacuum cleaner advertisement. However, in the scheme of droid toys it is quite appropriate. Those earlier industry professionals harping on the longevity of consumer electronics at their outset were absolutely right. Sphero's BB-8 has set a precedent for exceedingly high expectations and more or less redefined the interactive Star Wars toy -- it's just as, if not more appealing to parents as it is to their children. Yet, its awesomeness can only be fully appreciated by remembering its humble Kenner predecessor whose semi-lameness only increases its charm as time passes.

With that in mind, brace your ears...

Thanks to Ron Salvatore and Chris Georgoulias for the photograph and additional information on the larger R2-D2 prototypes.

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