The rise of robotics has brought us robots that can place objects in boxes, follow workers through warehouses, and serve as hotel assistants. A new robot built by San Francisco startup Anki, however, just can’t stop playing games.
Anki scored a hit in 2013 with its Drive (and now Overdrive) lineup of robotic racecars and related mobile app and racetracks. The company’s take on toy racecars earned praise from big shots like Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook and former Disney (DIS) president Michael Ovitz, who became an advisor to the startup.
Its new robot, called Cozmo, has been in development since fall 2011, and incorporates some of the artificial intelligence technologies used in its racecars to help them steer themselves and navigate a racetrack without crashing into each other, explained Hanns Tappeiner, a co-founder and president of Anki.
Unlike Anki’s sleek and sporty racecars, Cozmo is a bit more charming and winsome in appearance and is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. It resembles a toy truck with a forklift-like mechanism for lifting small objects, a tank tread for movement, and an animated face displayed on a screen that consists of two large, blue eyes.
Professional animator Carlos Baena, who worked on movies like “Toy Story 3” and “Wall-E,” lead Anki’s team of animators and designers (some of whom worked at animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks (DWA)) who developed the way Cozmo moves and interacts with its surroundings. Especially important is Cosmo’s animated eyes that react to its surroundings.
Like the robot Eve from Wall-E, Cozmo’s pupil-less eyes shape-shift to reflect its mood, so if it’s feeling happy, its eyes can compress into little slits in a cartoonish manner. If a player hasn’t interacted with Cozmo for a bit, its eyes quickly morph into a little game of Pong, which indicates that Cozmo is bored.
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Owners connect Cozmo to a mobile app through Wi-Fi, and the app acts as Cozmo’s brains, so to speak. Once turned on, Cozmo’s eyes light up and indicate that the little robot is scanning its surroundings.
Using computer vision, a branch of artificial intelligence technologies used to help computers recognize objects, Cozmo can lock on and remember a person’s face so that it knows whom it wants to play games with. Similar to how Facebook (FB) trained its computers to recognize faces in pictures but on a much smaller scale, Anki built software models that were fed “thousands of examples of faces,” which helped train Cozmo to identify people, said Tappeiner.
Instead of racing on a track, Cozmo is intended to play custom games with its owners. Anki created a series of games involving three cubes (each a bit smaller than Cozmo) in which each side blinks in different colors depending on game.
In one game called Speed Tap, both Cozmo and a player are assigned one of the cubes, and whenever the cubes flash the same color, the player must tap his or her cube before Cozmo can. Cozmo was programmed to react to each win or loss, and if it wins a lot, its confidence will grow and it will pester the player to continue playing the game. If it loses, it can become frustrated and will flail its forklift arms around like an upset Yosemite Sam.
When not playing a game with a person, Cozmo will gravitate to its three cubes like a cat to catnip. Cozmo’s software brain decides how it wants to play with the cubes and can perform a host of tasks like picking them up, placing them on top of each other, or toppling them down.
The whole time it plays, Cozmo makes little chirping and cooing sounds that also help indicate its current mood. When new players enter their names into the mobile app, Cozmo will say their names out loud in a cartoonish voice that sounds child-like and friendly.
It’s difficult to say how entertained consumers will be when the novelty of Cozmo fades away after several games. The robot is designed well enough to bring a smile to one’s face, and watching it move on its own and interact with objects on a table is a delightful experience.
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However, it remains to be seen if the games Anki created in conjunction with Cozmo are compelling enough for people to want to repeatedly play. Tappeiner said that his team will continue to develop more games and add-ons for Cozmo, and Anki plans to release a software development kit so outside coders can build their own features for Cozmo.
Cozmo’s battery life runs about an hour and a half, and it takes about 6 to 8 minutes to fully charge, said Tappeiner. The robot will ship to consumers in October and will cost $179.