Robotic toymaker Sphero unveils Ultimate Lightning McQueen — a chatty, smartphone-controlled car

While Sphero has released a whole lineup of robotic, Internet-connected toys, it remains best-known for its BB-8 droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Today it’s launching its next Disney tie-in — Ultimate Lightning McQueen.

This is a car that you can control from your iPhone or Android, based on the Owen Wilson-voiced character from Pixar’s Cars franchise. (Cars 3 is coming out on June 16.) Ultimate Lightning McQueen is available today for a price of $299.

“As our partnership with Disney has evolved, we’ve been able to start to look at further properties within the Disney portfolio,” explained Product Manager Jenica Watts. (Sphero’s initial connection to Disney was as part of the Disney Accelerator.) “One of the teams had the opportunity to build an amazing, lifelike Lightning McQueen.”

The idea of a remote-controlled car from Cars might not seem all that novel, but it looks like Sphero has put a lot of work into bringing the character to life. Probably the first thing you’ll notice is that his front windshield is an LCD screen displaying Lightning’s animated eyes. And he talks, too — Watts said this is the first time a speaker has been built into a Sphero toy, and there’s even an animatronic mouth that moves as he speaks.

There’s also a feature that Sphero calls “emotive suspension.” That means Lightning doesn’t just drive around — his left and right sides also twitch up and down with excitement, and he’ll speak and move in response to taps on his roof, hood and doors.

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This was all supervised by Pixar’s Jay Ward, creative director for the Cars franchise, with advice from Bobby Podesta, supervising animator on Cars 3. The end result is that Ultimate Lightning McQueen has a real sense of personality — enough so that after we’d been charging him for a few minutes in the corner of the TechCrunch New York office, we had to put him to sleep because of his constant demands for attention. (To be fair, that’s probably what we should have done in the first place.)

As for his performance on the road, the smartphone app offers an intuitive interface for driving him around at speeds of up to 6 miles per hour, with support for reversing and drifting. I’m not exactly an experienced remote-controlled driver (some of my friends would say that I’m not much better with an actual car), but even so, I enjoyed crashing Ultimate Lightning McQueen around the Sphero demo space, and then around our office.

The only real difficulty I had was in the initial setup, where it took a couple of tries before I successfully paired my phone with Lightning and downloaded all the needed updates.

There other features I haven’t had a chance to test out yet. For one thing, Sphero says you can watch the Cars films with Lightning and he’ll offer his own commentary (his microphone will pick up the movie’s audio). There’s also a Pit Stop Panic game that you can play on your phone. And the company says it has created more than 150 animations for Lightning to perform, which users can connect together into scripts through an “acting studio” in the app.







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