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Lester's "Just in time for Christmas Shopping" toy review.

Review of the "Industrial Automation* R2-D2 Astromech Droid"

(*That's pronounced "Hasbro")

I loved the Star Wars movies (the first 3, not that crap Lucas is trying to push on us now.) They rocked. You walked away wanting one of everything, and by that I don't mean 2 inch tall action figured and 1-60th scale X-Wing, I mean THE REAL DEAL! Zipping through space in my very own Millennium Falcon, and chatting it up with my new droid friends.

Well, part of that has become a reality. While limited in size (to about 1/6th scale), Hasbro's R2-D2 Interactive Droid is the coolest toy I've seen in a long time. It is so cool that almost a year after its purchase, I still have yet to meet its equal, and I'm no less impressed as I was the first time we busted him out of his cardboard prison.

Standing at 15" tall, the toy is a very good replication of the R2-D2 we came to know and love from the Star Wars movies. (Face it, he was your favorite. C3PO talked too much, and was way to pompous.) Even if you aren't a fan of the movies (or God Forbid, haven't seen them) R2 still has a lot to bring to the table.

The R2 toy is, in all ways, a true robot. "He" processes sensory input, and responds accordingly. This is done through a pretty beefy array of input devices such as a light/infrared sensor, sonar, and stereoscopic sound. (The latter allowing R2 to follow sounds, or turn to look at you when you speak to him.) Lastly, he contains a voice recognition unit tuned to over 65 words from a pretty wide variety of voice types. (My youngest son still has problems with "r" and "w", neither of which trips up R2's ability to understand him).

Mobility is provided through 2 "tracks", according to the manual, which are actually rather large rubber wheels. The center leg contains a trackball type roller, with power being provided solely by the two rear legs. According to the website (and my own experience) he moves pretty good on carpet up to a medium shag. Go Juice is provided by 4 D, and 4 AA batteries. Power consumption, even on carpeting, is low.

Since you probably don't have a starship big enough to keep R2 gainful employed, you'll spend most of your time running through the different tasks R2 can accomplish around the house.

R2 has 3 distinct modes, Companion, Game, and Command.

Companion Mode is the default program for R2. In companion mode, you have several options including "Patrol", "Behave Yourself" (needed when R2 is feeling a little uppity), and "Be Quiet". Asking R2 if he remembers certain characters gives several pre-programmed responses, such as happiness (With Luke, or Chewbacca) and fear (like mentioning Anakin or Darth Vader). Throwing R2 into Patrol can give you a quick idea of just how good R2's sensors operate, as well as his limitations. Putting him on "Time Out" sends him rolling off to he nearest corner, where he sits making sad sounds, occasionally looking over his shoulder to see if you're feeling sorry for him. (And who can forget "Play Message", which gives you a quick audio snippet of the message that sent Luke on his journey off of Tatooine.)

In Game Mode, R2 is capable of playing several games, including "Spin the Droid", "Light Tag", "Answer This", and "Dance Program". "Spin the Droid" is a hi-tech knock off of the "Spin The Bottle" game you most likely played in school. The difference here being that the "bottle" can actually detect if I person is sitting in the location he stops at. "Answer This" turns R2 into a noisy Magic 8 Ball capable of answering simple Yes or No questions. "Dance Program" causes R2 to break out into his own personal rendition of the Cantina Theme, while doing a little boogie on the floor. Last, and definitely not least, is "Light Tag", where you and a couple of friends switch off the light and hide in a room. R2 uses his sensor to patrol the room until he finds someone, and lights them up with his light beam.

Also listed under Game Mode, but not really a game, is "Room Guard". After a 10 second count down, R2 gives all appearances of having switched off. While operating in a low power mode, his sensor array is still active, looking and listening for intruders near his immediate area. This has frustrating consequences when trying to check on your children at night, but is well worth the purchase price when the cat makes the mistake of wandering by.

Command Mode basically turns R2 into a voice activated "Big Trak". By telling R2 to plot a course, you then manually tell him which direction to turn, and how far to roll, in a measurement of "units". This command can then be replayed by having him "Execute" the preprogrammed steps. (I haven't used Command Mode much, but I suspect it comes in handy with R2's built in drink holder.)

In all 3 modes, the command "Reset System" does a warm boot of R2, returning him to Companion Mode.

With any cool geek toy comes Easter Eggs. In R2's case two of them appear to be commands that don't quite work well enough to be "features". "Follow Me" allows R2 to follow you around a room, but moving with any speed other than pretty slow causes R2 to get easily thrown off track. "Come Here" works similarly, but relies on sound to get an initial bearing. Too much distance, and noise reflecting off of walls can throw this off.

A couple of other Easter Eggs pertain to additional dance music when reminded of certain people. (A clue: R2 beeping and snorting the Imperial March gets a laugh from anyone within ear shot.) (See below for a list of Easter Eggs I know of.)

With all the great things this little guy can do, there are a few caveats.

First of all: If you stick him on a table, he's coming off it. If you put him near steps, he's going down them, and not gracefully in either instance. Luckily he contains a "wheel lock" button, which maintains all functionality, but disengages his ability to move. (He is aware, and will get rather "grumpy" if you try to play motion games with his wheels locked. BTW: "Grumpy" is represented by a "mood" light near his light beam, along with a tad bit of stubborn behavior.)

While R2's voice recognition works really well, he can be a little frustrating to talk to when there is a large amount of background noise. This includes trying to operate in rooms with high sound reflection.

Lastly, his sonar sensor is mounted on his dome. This works out well when he's trying to look around and track an object, but it tends to make his navigation a little sketchy, requiring that objects he needs to navigate around be tall enough to trip the sensor. A secondary sensor in the middle leg (near the ground) would have done wonders.

(Want to add an extra sensor? Good luck! After over a year on the market there are no R2 hacking sites on the net. I suspect that after a couple of hours of playing, no one can bring themselves to take apart the new family friend!)

This toy is COOL, way COOL, the coolest toy since the Erector set. And carries them for $69. (FYI: Wal-Mart is listing it as a Clearance Item, meaning you might want to move quick to pick one up!)

Buy 2. He's worth every penny, and your kids will like him too.

Easter Eggs:

There are two extra programs not mentioned in the instructions.  (I suspect it is because they don't really work well enough to be called a "feature").  These are "Follow Me" and "Come Here".  Both are activated from Companion Mode.

For details on the 6th Easter Egg (Mentioned on the Hasbro site, but never documented), please visit the NAQ section.


David L. Cosner, LCPL, USMC
Lest We Forget


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