Anki has made a name for itself with its robotic cars that combine Scalextric style real world racing with videogame challenges and augmented reality weapons.
At a time when toys-to-life may have peaked and a number of businesses are looking for the next big toy-game crossover, Anki has steadily carved a strong niche. But this week sees the release of a different product from the same minds. It's is launching its Cozmo robot on the US and with that we get a closer look at the company’s robotic aspirations.
Cozmo looks like a Pixar character in toy form. It fits in the hand and can move around with caterpillar tracks. It has a small lifting arm at the front and two big eyes on its OLED face. A front facing camera can see the world, detect obstacles and recognise faces.
To describe the little robot by its physical attributes is to miss the point though. Power Cozmo up and immediately it feels different to other robotic tech toys. It’s actually a little unnerving at first as Cozmo trundles off its charging dock, looks up to see your face and then says your name.
Of course, this is a simple trick that many toys can pull off. However, spending more time with Cozmo reveals there is more going on here than meets the eye. Rather than a series of pre-programmed actions that players can trigger with a button press or voice command, Cozmo moves seamlessly from one action to another without the need for intervention.
This A.I. character is driven by different requirements that lead to novel interactions. For example, his need for human contact leads him to spot and identify any faces in the room. Once this is satisfied he then get’s on with other tasks. But should his interaction level drop too much he stops what he’s doing to look up and check you are still watching.
It’s a simple interaction, just one of many that convince children that there is a genuine character behind Cozmo. He's not simply an automaton that simply responds to commands.
This is underlined by that way Cozmo moves and responds to his environment. Gone is the slow and steady gait of other toy robots; Anki’s creation is fast, responsive and vocal. He’s animated using tools historically used for animated films or videogames, only here rendered in cogs, gears and motors rather than pixels.
This all comes together during some of the more intense interactions - often while playing some of Cozmo’s games. Take Quick Tap for example, where Cozmo challenges you to tap a cube faster than him when the lights match. It’s a common enough mechanic but one that finds added intensity and subtlety through Cozmo’s sneaky personality.
He will make eye contact, say things and even pretend to tap the cube in an effort to put you off. Even on the easier levels it’s a tough ask - particularly if you are easily distracted by tiny Pixar-esque robots.
The biggest challenge to Cozmo’s success lies in communicating what families get for the higher price ($179.99 when it hits the US this month). This is about the same as the Force Band controlled BB8, although of course Cozmo doesn’t have a blockbuster movie character to hang his hat on.
Get Cozmo out the box and on the living room floor and its clear where the fun is, but in the box he looks similar to other robotic products. Anki’s response to this so far has been with their Cozmoments series of videos that show the character in different situations. These might appear to be animated videos but are in actual fact very close to the experience Cozmo delivers in the home.
With Cozmo we see a new phase in the trend of combining toys and video-games. With toys-to-life game makers like Lifeseekers and Infinite Arms looking to bring those experiences to tablets, Anki comes at things from the other direction.
Its toys are brought to life with games and electronics that keep the action firmly in the real world rather than just augmenting what’s on the screen.
These are still early days for Cozmo, but with an SDK available to enable the public to take advantage of Anki’s robotic smarts it’s already looking like the must have tech toy of the year.
Cozmo is out in the US on 16 October, priced at $179.99 (£147).