James Bruton picks up the head of his BB-8 droid, beaming. The third version of his masterpiece is almost complete, and he has plenty of reason to be happy: he’s built something that people have torn themselves apart trying to build. It’s the latest in a long line of impressive projects, which also includes an Iron Man suit and a Hulkbuster outfit.
It’s the same cute droid that Star Wars: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams famously sketched on a cocktail napkin a few years ago and would later become the spirited, spherical, not-CGI sidekick to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the film.
Bruton has become something of a celebrity for his achievements, chronicled on his YouTube channel where he shows off his work and is in the top-five percent of all of YouTube’s entertainment accounts. Now, his fans approach him not just at robotics shows, but sometimes at restaurants.
“I have signed autographs at Comic-Con events, but it’s a bit weird,” he says. “I have to get used to that, I guess.”
When this third BB-8 (he still has the other two) is finished, Bruton’s got bigger plans: He will start work on a two-foot tall GNK droid. In the films, the droids are three foot seven, so James has some way to go before coming close to a perfect replica, but if the first version is a success the second one will be even bigger.
Bruton says he’s is driven in his work to solve mechanical puzzles. When BB-8 rolled out onto stage at last year’s b, sci-fi fans went bananas. Look at this feat of engineering, rolling onto the stage! How does the head balance on top? How could we make our own?
After that debut, there began a rush among makers to build their own BB-8, but there’s trouble in paradise, Bruton says. “There’s quite a lot of controversy and in-fighting going on in the BB-8 builder’s group at the moment,” Bruton says. The group administrators published a BB-8 design, complete with a list of materials, that members tried to recreate themselves. The published design didn’t work at all. The spheres were really thick and the flywheel was too small. Members were annoyed, to say the least.
It was Bruton to the rescue. “I’ve pretty much swamped YouTube with BB-8 building videos,” Bruton says. At the time of writing, his channel has more than 315,000 subscribers. His most-watched video, demonstrating his 2013 Iron Man cosplay build, has over 15 million views. His most-watched BB-8 video has more than 2 million views. His Iron Man project has around 50 videos, while BB-8 has over 30.
Bruton’s BB-8 is composed of 3D-printed plastic that Bruton designed himself. Whereas previous versions of the BB-8 housed all the controls in the character’s “head,” for the third version he’s moved to a more advanced system where some controls are housed in the ball. These controls use accelerometers and gyroscopes to make sure BB-8’s head always stays balanced on top.
Bruton’s initial builds of the BB-8 only worked on carpet. To try and rectify this, he built a special “development ball” to test out a variety of materials that could be placed inside to give it a bit of weight. This would help increase balance on smoother surfaces. Here is the BB-8 test ball full of ball bearings:
By day, James works for Bladez Toyz, a toy company in Portsmouth, a city on the southern coast of England. But in his spare time, he tinkers at a maker space in nearby Southampton. SoMakeIt runs the Southampton Makerspace, where Bruton gives 10 percent of the funding raised from his Patreon account, where he crowdfunds his work that is “mostly building Sci-Fi props & Cosplays using 3D printing and electronics as well as traditional techniques such as sculpting, moulding & casting.”
“I’d say James could be regarded as our community’s ‘celebrity,’ as he has such a large YouTube following and is so well-known in the wider maker, hobbyist and robotics circles,” Alistair Brugsch, another visitor to the Southampton Makerspace, tells Inverse.
It may seem like Bruton’s star power is drawing people into the area, but that would do a disservice to the sheer breadth of projects being worked on by the maker community. There are people working on flying machines, smart home electronics, and experiments with tiny computers like the Raspberry Pi.
“We have a number of people making various costumes such as Iron Man and Groot,” says Jem Gillam, a co-organizer at the Makerspace. “Plus there are people who are making robots such as the droids from Star Wars and the Dalek from Doctor Who.”
Bruton has, however, played his part in boosting the numbers. “It was actually via James that I came to discover the Makerspace,” Alistair says. “He was running a demonstration stand at an event I went to, and I happened to be looking for a venue to be able to 3D print some things at that time, and he was demonstrating 3D printing.”
Bruton’s interest in electronics has almost been a permanent feature of his life. Born in 1976, he grew up near Brighton, a town on the English south coast. “Toys then weren’t so branded,” he says of his early interest in electronics.
Bruton went to university in Birmingham in the late ‘90s, living in nearby Tamworth. Soon after university, he moved to London and played drums in a band called The Wardrobe, which he described as “kind of alternative stuff, a bit like Belle and Sebastian.” The band’s long over, but you can still hear 2000’s “Mechanism Genie and the Metronome,” on Bandcamp.
Bruton moved on to new hobbies, spending more time on his electronics work. When he registered his XRobots.co.uk domain in 2004, it was so he had a place to showcase his part-time hobby.
It was an ideal time for Bruton’s burgeoning interest: For one, the patents on 3D printing devices had recently expired, and this led to an explosion in accessible costume design. Arduino electronic modules also dropped in price, and YouTube’s launch in 2005 gave hobbyists like him a platform to slowly start sharing their work.
In 2013, Bruton began taking the YouTube channel to a new level, committing himself to uploading a new video every Tuesday. Last summer, he was recruited by Bladez Toyz via his YouTube account, and left his day job at an insurance company job to do robots like BB-8 full-time.
Just last week, Bruton gave an update on BB-8’s progress. This minor update, just a quick demonstration of this work in progress, has already received nearly 50,000 views, and once again his fans are bowled over. “Fantastic, the best BB8 yet,” commented Mrjohn M. “Most excellent as always man!” commented modestcody123. “James you are doing great work!” added Darren Scott.
BB-8 and Iron Man may have brought Bruton critical acclaim in the building community, but he’s not stopping there. The GNK droid will be next, but with the forthcoming release of Star Wars: Rogue One, he has plans to revisit his R6 droid. “That’s the next thing to conquer,” he said. If BB-8 is anything to go by, the projects will roll on smoothly.