December 22, 2009      

Retailers expect this holiday season to be the worst in recent memory, yet Bossa Nova Robotics expects to sell 100,000 units each of its new robotic toys: Prime-8 and Penbo, priced at $99 and $79, respectively. The Prime-8 gorilla is aimed at boys from 8 to 12 years of age, and the Penbo pink penguin is aimed at girls from 4 to 8. Expect both to join the long list of failed toys with robotic underpinnings.

According to Pittsburgh-based Bossa Nova, its products are designed to “get kids interested in technology.” While this sounds high-minded, the company knows its intended audience and went for the lowest form of humor: a “fart” function on the remote controller of the Prime-8 gorilla. The product also makes clever use of Bossa Nova’a patent-pending “Ani-Motion” technology, which enables Prime-8 to move faster than any other robotic toy, according to the company, and is based on motion research included in the RHex hexapod robot developed at Carnegie Mellon University from 1999 to 2004.

Prime-8 runs on its spiral gorilla arms, using a technology similar to RHex, and navigates a variety of terrains, including grass, gravel, and thick carpet at high speed. Retractable feet allow Prime-8 to dance, one of the product’s 100 advertised functions. Another is the toy’s guard mode, in which the robot uses motion detectors to launch foam coconuts and noise at intruders. Other functions are interactive or personality related.

The interactive Penbo plays the cute card as strongly as Prime-8 goes for the rough-and-tumble role. Responsive when touched or spoken to, the penguin-shaped pink Penbo also opens its stomach cavity to reveal a chick called BeBe. The BeBe, which comes in four colors, provides some remote control functions over the mother Penbo. Put two Penbos together and they dance.

Both Prime-8 and Penbo appear similar in production quality to other toy robots, with Prime-8, due to its form factor, appearing to be more robust than its sister robot Penbo (although the retractable feet look to be likely candidates for dismemberment, rendering the toy useless). The flapping penguin arms and the hinged door that drops to present the BeBe look too fragile for extended play.

The Robotics Toy Market
According to the NPD Group, an analyst firm specializing in the toy industry, worldwide toy sales reached $71.6 billion in 2007, and that is expected to increase to $86.3 billion in 2010. If robotic toys only account for a fraction of this growing market, it is still large enough to support a number of substantial players. Some robotics products have sold extremely well-think Tiger Electronics’ Furby (40 million units total) and WowWee Robotics’ Robosapien (3 million sold). It is for this reason that products are constantly coming into the robotics toy marketplace, and also the reason the market is littered with successful, but much more often failed, products.

A formidable problem for Bossa Nova and other robotics toy producers is the formal and anecdotal evidence that robotics smart toys suffer from a “one day of play” syndrome, whereby children tire of these holiday impulse buys shortly after they are purchased. This lack of enduring play value has the potential to reduce the long-term sales outlook for a specific toy, as well as damage the company’s brand. Without extending the play value of a product like Prime-8, it will become nothing more than a remote control car in the bottom of the closet after a few days. Penbo may well suffer the same fate.