Might things be a little bit better for all of us if we each had a cute, anthropomorphic little robot buddy around? One that did cute things like beep-boop encouragement when we’re down or that could fetch us the weather report in the most adorable way possible (rainy digital eyes, anyone?).
Not everyone is likely to need or even want such a thing, but that’s not stopping Anki, a Silicon Valley robot-gadgets company, from pushing on its goal of getting a friendly robot into every home.
Today, it’s taking the wraps off of “Vector,” a $250 robot that, in a Kickstarter video that begins the sales campaign in advance of an October product launch, is what might have happened if the future robots from Pixar’s “Wall-E” had been the model for Amazon’s Alexa/Echo smart speakers.
Vector rolls around on little tracks and makes electronic puppy eyes at you while performing tasks such as fist bumps, taking photos and videos of its environment, delivering notifications off your smartphone and acting as a tiny, mobile security cam for your home.
Hanns Tappeiner, co-founder and president of Anki, says that Vector is an attempt to avoid the scary SKYNET robot future of “The Terminator” while adding a lot more personality and character to the digital companions we’ve come to rely on (Alexa, Siri, Google Home, Cortana).
“As a company our goal has always been to figure out how to get robots into people’s homes,” he said. “But we want a friendly future of robots: entertaining, endearing, useful. We knew a robot with personality would be a really big deal.”
If Anki were a new startup, it would be easy to dismiss Vector as hype, but the company has a strong track record over the past eight years. It created a mobile-phone controlled racing game called “Anki Overdrive” that, improbably, puts physical toy cars on flat printed mats and creates a fast-paced R/C-style game experience for under $100.
Its first attempt at an AI robot, Cozmo, debuted two years ago and has been a hot toy seller, combining educational STEM learning with the beginnings of what Vector appears to be.
Tappeiner says Vector is different because it has a much more powerful processor thanks to Qualcomm, and is always on and cloud-connected. It doesn’t have to be tethered to a mobile phone to work and will be continually updated to add new features.
(When Amazon debuted its first Echo speaker with Alexa in late 2014, it cost around $199 and was greatly improved over time with new features.)
“What we’re doing was really only technically possible since last year,” Tappeiner said. “There’s never really been a product like this before.”
Vector is personality-driven, he says, and that’s largely thanks to a team of AI engineers as well as character-animation veterans from companies including DreamWorks and Pixar. Some of the product images and concept art for Vector look like Disney storyboards; expressive eyes and soft, rounded edges that seem to suggest the kinds of warm hugs desired by Olaf from “Frozen.”
Under the hood, Vector includes lasers and sensors to avoid objects and to keep from falling off the edge of tables. It can also recognize faces; when you meet it, Tappeiner says, it remembers your face and name and begins developing an individual relationship with you, different from anyone else Vector encounters.
“Everything you do with that robot is specific to you; your relationship to the robot is different from anybody else,” he said.
And while it can be attentive, responding to your voice and touch, it won’t seek constant attention. “If it was on 100 percent of the time, it would drive you crazy,” Tappeiner said. “We wanted to make sure the robot feels alive and interested, but not something annoying or over the top.”
The history of robots, teased so long ago by “The Jetsons,” has been littered with failures, however. Sony’s AIBO robot dog still feels like an expensive curiosity
And Honda recently abandoned its more human-looking Asimo robot project. Attempts to marry cute robot exteriors to practical purposes sometimes swing for the fences and don’t quite score. We’re told that robots will eventually help care for our elderly and keep us healthy, but most AI we interact with is through our phones and devices such as smart speakers.
Anki is betting that Vector’s personality, with its nudges to your sympathy bone and its continually animated and expressive eyes, will make the case that character goes a long way toward improving relations between humans and robots.
And it’s sweetening the deal for what Tappeiner calls the “Tech-immersive” audience on Kickstarter. It will sell Vector at $199 and ship it first to those backers to receive by Oct. 9, three days before it officially goes on sale in stores.
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