A not-so-long time ago, with help from a company not far, far away, Steve Schmidt set about building his own replica of “Star Wars’” famed R2-D2.
Just about two years after setting out on the quest to bring his own robot companion to life, Schmidt, the manager of user experience at Centare in Brookfield, will be sharing his creation at the opening night of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” this Thursday.
“I have been a ‘Star Wars’ fan since I was 6 years old," Schmidt said. "I met a woman who became my wife and, about a year into our married life, we realized we had this insane ‘Star Wars’ connection and the two of us have been collecting and going to conventions and we’re just crazy about ‘Star Wars.’ ”
R2 builders club
Schmidt, who lives in Greenfield, now counts himself among the ranks of the Astromech R2-D2 Builders Club. The club includes over 10,000 members around the world who share the hobby of building replicas of the faithful droid companion complete with all the bells, whistles, beeps, boops, lights and wheels.
“When we first went to a convention where we saw some of the R2 builders, it just blew me away. It’s always intrigued me, Schmidt said. "At one of the more recent conventions, I was standing in line and made some new friends and one guy happens to be a builder. He said, ‘Oh, it’s really easy.’ I decided to give it a shot.”
The aluminum dome that Schmidt’s wife gave to him for his birthday kicked off the building process and the robot now rotates, lights up and does just about everything else that a proper droid pal should.
“After I got the dome, all of the R2 builders have a convention that meets every three years or so called Droid Con and I attended one and I attended as a builder that only had a dome. So I got to ask guys there, ‘Where do you go from there?’” Schmidt said. “It was very helpful, it’s a very friendly community of people who are just very passionate about this little character.”
Improving command system
After building the legs and frame of his own R2 unit, Schmidt set about installing the electronics and the controls for his droid. At this point, it was time for him to reciprocate the help that his fellow builders had given him by creating a new, easier way to send commands to R2. To achieve this, Schmidt credits his work at Centare, a software company he has worked at for 10 years.
“I manage the user experience department here," Schmidt said. "So not only do we design software, but we analyze how people use it in order to make it better. The members of the R2 Builders group had been adapting the old model airplane controllers.”
Builders have been moving toward using Xbox and PlayStation controllers in recent years; however, they have been troubled by being unable to have their droids move and emit sound effects at the same time. As such, Steve drew upon his experience.
“I made that improvement and I posted that back into the club forums and said ‘Hey, this is why I made this change and what it does for me,’” Schmidt said. “Now, that’s the new standard for this controller moving forward.”
There are a few elements of his R2-D2 that Schmidt hopes to improve on, such as giving the droid new legs, but for now, he’s happy to take his friend out for others to enjoy.
“He brings me great joy and it’s so amazing to take him out in public and see everyone’s face light up," Schmidt said. "The most recent convention we were at, there was myself and another builder and we were set up in the lobby of this hotel. So, everyone had to walk by us. Whether they were coming in for the pop culture convention or just getting their room for the hotel, everyone walked by and would stop and just get this big grin on their face.”
Schmidt and R2 will be making some rounds this week with the latest “Star Wars” film set to hit the big screens. The pair will be at the Marcus South Shore Cinema in Greenfield Thursday evening, Dec. 15 up until Schmidt's own 11 p.m. show. They will also be out Saturday morning at the North Shore Cinema in Mequon.
“The puppetry has been part of what brings him to life: The moment where you can make that connection where people stop looking for, ‘Who is controlling that?’ and then they say ‘Oh my God, this is R2’ and they give him a hug,” Schmidt said. “He’s an amazing character.”
As for “Rogue One,” Schmidt is excited and expects the latest film to be good.