Consumer robotics company Anki, which developed the popular Cozmo educational robot toy and the Drive and Overdrive racing sets, today launched Vector, an autonomous home robot that acts like a cross between a virtual home assistant and a robotic pet.
The “home robot with personality” will be available for preorder today via Kickstarter ($199) for Oct. 9 delivery, with general availability in retail stores on Oct. 12, ($249.99). The Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Sept. 6, will offer backers early access to the software development kit alpha, launching this winter, and also enrollment in the Vector Insiders Club, which the company said will “help shape the future development roadmap for Vector.”
Anki describes Vector as the “big brother to Cozmo,” featuring a similar design – it looks like a tiny bulldozer. However, lots of technology is packed into the small robot, including:
- A Qualcomm Technologies platform that provides connectivity, computing, camera, and on-device artificial intelligence.
- An HD camera with 120-degree field of view that lets the robot see the world around it, recognize people, and learn the names of the people it sees.
- A four-microphone array that lets it hear and detect commands from humans around the home via the command, “Hey, Vector.”
- The ability to recognize when his battery is running low – the robot can locate and roll back to a charger. Four “cliff sensors,” infrared emitters located under the robot, prevent it from falling off counters or tables.
- Security features that minimize data collection for privacy – the company said it does not store voice or audio in the cloud.
- Wi-Fi connectivity that connects to the cloud for over-the-air updates, so users don’t need to manually update the robot’s system.
Personality goes a long way
Vector features almost 700 parts in its tiny frame, but the company said its real selling point is not the hardware, but the software and character personality that’s being offered.
“With this whole movement in terms of virtual assistants, it’s very easy to see that we’re barely scratching the surface,” said Mark Palatucci, an Anki co-founder and head of the company’s cloud AI and data science group. “These assistants have no emotion, they have no character, they’re stuck in a cylindrical, static device.”
Vector’s primary function is to be a robot companion, where users can set it up once and have it live in the home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“A huge amount of the work we’ve done is thinking about how we bring this character to life such that you never want to turn him off, and that a year later, he could still be running and still be fun,” said Palatucci. “There are two big pillars to the robot – we’re trying to bring the fun, friendly home companion, but at the same time, taking a really big step to show that these robots can do something very useful.”
To that end, Vector includes a bunch of personality features, including:
- A high-resolution color IPS display that includes about 1,000 animations so it can react to the environment.
- Responding to human touch through a capacitive touch sensor on its back.
- The ability to respond to simple tasks – for example, when you ask Vector the weather, the robot will respond with an animation on its display. Other tasks include things like setting a timer for cooking, and intelligently framing a photo by recognizing the faces of the people in the shot.
- The ability to play games with the Cube accessory, and even “dancing to the beat” of music that the robot hears.
However, the company is also thinking about how to make sure that Vector doesn’t show too much personality, where it ends up causing a lot of commotion or distracting members of the family.
“We don’t want a person to ever turn this robot off,” Palatucci said. “So if the lights go off and it’s on your nightstand and he starts snoring, it’s not going to work. He really needs to use his sensors, his vision system, and his microphone to understand the context of what’s going on, so he knows when you want to interact, and more importantly, when you don’t.”
A robotic voice, not a disembodied human
Another design decision the company made was around its voice, which sounds more machine-like and robotic than something you’d hear from Alexa, Cortana, or Siri.
“We want to be able to ask the robot natural-language questions, and we could certainly on one extreme have a super-clear, text-to-speech voice, but at the same time that doesn’t really fit the idea of a small robot character,” said Palatucci. “You could go the other extreme where he’s doing the R2-D2 thing where it’s a bunch of beeps and boops and the robot’s expressive, but he’s not really able to communicate the same extent of information. So a lot of the iteration is really trying to find the right balance of a voice that’s both clear and intelligible, but at the same time fits the form factor, the design of the robot, and ultimately, that robot’s character. It’s a really tricky thing to do.”
Animators key to Vector character creation
Palatucci said there are two key differences between Vector and some of these other home robots. First, there is the depth of personality that Anki is including in the robot.
“A lot of people approach this by having a screen and putting a little face on it,” he said. “But there’s so much more to bringing a character to life.”
Anki has hired an animation team, including former employees of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, to work alongside the mechanical engineers as they develop the robot.
“Who are the people that really understand character?” said Palatucci. “It’s not the roboticists, it’s not the AI people, it’s not the mechanical engineers. It’s really people from the world of feature films – it’s people from animation. A lot of the approach that we build at Anki now mimics what they do at Pixar.”
For example, the company will create storyboards around character and emotions before they start creating the physical motions of the robot. The company also merges tools from the feature film animation world into its own software for physical robot controls.
“This is what allows us to fundamentally animate a character in the physical world the same way you would in the movies,” Palatucci said. “Our animators have a virtual representation of the robot, but when they hit play, instead of seeing a virtual representation, they’ll actually see the robot on their desk doing the same behavior.”
The second difference between Vector and other home robots is the price point.
“One of the big learnings we’ve had as a company is that if you want to hit that mass market, then price point ultimately matters significantly,” said Palatucci. “The value proposition for people changes at around the $200 mark. If you get above that by $100 or $200, your market drops off extremely.”
The privately held Anki also announced that it has sold more than 1.5 million robots worldwide, with Cozmo being the top-selling toy on Amazon in 2017 in the U.S., U.K., and France. Since its founding in 2010, the company has raised more than $200 million in venture capital.