Pop culture has made robots fun and interactive companions, be they virtual pets or helpful assistants. And Anki is hoping its upcoming Vector smart robot will fall right in.
R2-D2 from Star Wars may be the most recognizable robot, despite making funny noises that are unintelligible. Yet its roving movement and beeps still feel communicative. It's within that cutesy vein that Anki is positioning Vector.
While it looks like a clone of the company's Cozmo robot (save for a different colour scheme), the angle is different. Cozmo was built as an interactive toy for kids, where they can learn things while playing games with it through a dedicated app. Vector is being positioned as a fun companion that will be given a suite of smart features moving forward.
Cozmo didn't have any microphones built-in to listen for voice commands, whereas Vector has four, putting it closer to achieving something similar to Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Even the "wake word" salutation is the same. Say, "Hey, Vector" and it's ready to go.
Running on a Qualcomm chipset, Vector is cloud-connected, so it does need a consistent connection via Wi-Fi, in order to compute commands and act on them. That also automates the updates, meaning the robot will download and install new software updates as Anki rolls them out. The idea is to bring out more of the artificial intelligence in the device over time, enabling it with more ability to interact with and control compatible devices on demand.
For example, the IPS display on the Vector's head uses its eyes to convey some form of acquiescence or emotion. Pet its back (which has a capacitive touch sensor) and it begins closing its eyes to show that it finds it soothing. Anki says there are over 1,000 unique animations. It will dance to music, and even be willing to play Blackjack.
In a practical sense, its ability borrows from the current voice assistant platforms. Setting a timer is easy, as is asking it about a person, place, or thing. Anki reps I met with at the launch event in Toronto said the speaker volume will be higher to better hear what the robot says, and that the robotic voice I heard will continue to be tweaked before Vector officially launches. Both reps confirmed Anki won't be storing voice or audio data on its servers, adding an extra layer of privacy and security.
I was able to have it learn my name and voice by going through a short setup looking into the front-facing camera. It does have a relatively wide 120-degree view, and once it recognizes you, it can perk up eagerly waiting for you to say something.
Thankfully, it won't roll off a countertop or table, thanks to four sensors underneath that keep it from falling off the proverbial cliff. When low on battery or "feeling tired," it will roll and back up into its charging base.
With all that in mind, there are still some caveats. Anki says it's not really targeting Vector at general consumers, noting that "enthusiasts" will likely be first to adopt it. It's also hard to gauge the robot's effectiveness as a companion without really seeing it in day-to-day situations. Alexa and Google Assistant are largely stationary tools that do a job in spite of showing any personality.
The Vector's display is tiny relative to something like the Echo Spot, which not only runs Alexa, but also uses a decent-sized screen. The robot's footprint is pretty much the same, so you don't have to make too much room for the charger, but it still needs ample space to roam. Kitchen or dining tables seem like the best bet, but with its onboard sensors, it can work in tighter spaces, too.
From what I saw thus far, this is a product of want over need in a big way. Vector doesn't have the backend support to replace an Alexa or Google Home device, especially since it remains to be seen how far it may be able to go in controlling other smart home products.
It's not a children's toy like the Cozmo, either. There's no dedicated app to play games and it wouldn't serve a dual purpose that way.
In fairness, robots like this do have some cachet, except notoriety does help, as it's done for the BB-8 and R2-D2 robots made by Sphero. Anki is designing Vector to go far beyond what those robot toys do, so time will tell.
Vector will launch in Canada on October 4 and retail for $330, though the company hasn't yet disclosed which retailers will carry it.
Anki will also release something called Vector Space, a $40 accessory that is effectively a playpen for the robot. An SDK (software development kit) will be available for developers to build new features and capabilities.