2016 is the year of the Robot. Yes, there have been toy robots before, but never with the sophistication of today's models. Now robots are not just RC vehicles to drive around the living room; many have artificial intelligence, can play with us, and even include augmented reality. Robotic toys emerged from a different path than most. Instead of coming from the big manufacturers, many came out of startups and garages founded by smart people who were unhappy with the toys that were available for their kids. They share an idea that there is not a dichotomy between smart and fun, that they should be complimentary. They believe that they should be gender neutral, appealing to girls and boys, with no barrier to entry. In other words, more often than not, these are the tech enabled toys you'd build for your kids if only you could.
Design-wise, there are three major classes of robots in descending level of sophistication: artificial intelligence, programmable, and remote controlled. There is certainly overlap: most have some RC capabilities, for example.
The most sophisticated AI enabled toys I've tested come from Anki, makers of Cozmo and Anki Overdrive. When I first met with the founder of Anki, he told me that they were not a toy company, but a robotics company that makes great toys. That means that these toys have incredibly sophisticated innards that seem to make the impossible happen: fantasy come to life.
Anki OverDrive ($149.99)
For example, unlike most racing track toys, the cars and trucks of the Anki OverDrive system actually read the track you build and stay on course by themselves! The first time you seem them drive around the course without rails or slots or bumpers you will not believe your eyes. All that intelligence means that you can focus on speed, lane changes, weapons, and shields while you race, controlling your vehicles with your smartdevice. (As with all toys that rely on your phone or tablet as a controller, be sure to check for compatibility before you buy!)
Because the toys are tightly integrated with the app, the game is constantly changing as you (and your opponents) level-up. Anki OverDrive is an expanding, growable system: You can add specialty tracks to the basic set, including jumps and intersections. And, starting this holiday season, there are big trucks that add new game modes and strategies.
Cozmo by Anki ($179.99)
Cozmo is the most sophisticated, cutest, amazing robot we've ever tested. Don't be fooled by his diminutive appearance. This little robot will endear you with his childlike personality. The magic starts as soon as you turn him on, I mean wake him up. You see Cozmo's face is a small screen with eyes drawn by a master animator. His sounds and voice are the stuff of famous movie robots: bleeps and chirps punctuated from time to time when he sees and recognizes you, by his saying your name. It will make you melt. When he makes eye contact and says "Jaaames", I melt each time.
Cozmo is packed with sensors, so he can wheel himself around the room all by himself, or you can take control of him and drive him like a blue eyed RC vehicle, observing the world from his vantage point via the on board camera. As you play with Cozmo he learns new games and tricks.
The robot comes with three blocks that have their own bit of magic. When Cozmo is ready to play with them he can turn them on without any help from you. They just start glowing. Cozmo can stack the blocks, make them roll, and use them in games. My grandson was giggling as we played keep-away with the robot. There is also a Simon-like game, and more games can be added as Cozmo is always growing.
Cozmo is more than the sum of his parts. There is a personality in there that feels as authentic as a pet's. His face, voice, reactions, and even his temper, combine to make something we've only seen in science-fiction films. This isn't a gimmick or novelty-toy; Cozmo is the future.
An alternative approach to robots is to make them programmable. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that these are dry academic 'bots. The best of this breed, described here, mix personality and programmability into rewarding, entertaining experiences for kids who have the attention span and inquisitiveness to stick with them.
Dash ($149) and Dot ($49.99)
The most sophisticated of these is Wonder Workshop's Dash and Dot. It starts out as an RC vehicle, but using the supplied apps, it quickly becomes a gateway to learning how to program through gaming. Dash moves around on three wheels hidden under his multi-spheroid body. His head has a cyclopean eye that can be customized with various colors using the apps, which can also control various ways he interacts with the world. Dot, shares many of the same customizations, but doesn't have any wheels. Instead it can be used to interact with Dash.
Programming isn't taught with dry lessons. Instead concepts are introduced in games. Kids can then take their knowledge in a more open ended way, programming through a drag-and-drop interface. If-Then, looping, variables, all the key concepts of programming, are put to good use in an age-appropriate way. Because the experience is driven by the software, the hardware can be marketed to a wide age range. Wonder Workshop has done an excellent job of providing a software path that works from preschool all the way up to tweens.
There are a number of add-in kits for Dash. By far, the favorite is a programable ping-pong ball launcher. There is also a xylophone (which was a bit finicky), and adapters that let you attach legos to the droid.
As with all these toys that are controlled by smartphone, be sure yours is on the list of compatible products by checking the manufacturer's website.
Primo Cubetto ($225, $245 with expansion pack including four additioal maps and books)
Started as a Kickstarter project back in 2013, Primo has followed through with another in 2016, before going retail for this holiday season. It claims to have been the most crowd-funded educational invention of all time, with 6,553 backers.
The basic set has three main parts: Cubetto, a wood and plastic square robot, a control board where Cubetto is programmed by inserting control pegs into the box in the desired order of operation, and a large playmat where Cubetto rolls.. In many ways Cubetto is a real-world version of the virtual-robot programming that goes on in Osmo Coding. Both were inspired by the LOGO programming language created to help introduce programming concepts to kids.
Programming concepts include loops, recursion, and functions. Pretty impressive for a toy with no screen or keyboard!
A lot of effort was obviously put into the physical design. The mix of wood and some pleasantly colored plastic sets this apart from the rest, and gives it a very upscale feel, like something you'd find in a well healed preschool. (Because the set uses coin-like control tiles it is important that kids playing it are well beyond exploring the world by sticking objects in their mouths, lest the toy become a choking hazard. As it is designed for children 3 and up you will need to judge whether it is appropriate for your child's present development.)
It works without screens, and smartphones, a plus particularly with young kids. Instead you make the robot move forward, left, or right by just putting the control tiles in the desired order. A couple of notes: unlike the Fisher Price programmable caterpillar, the markings for directions are less clear, leading to some trial-and-error. And, though the unit doesn't require a phone, it is quite expensive, costing more than some smartphones on the market.
An optional playset is also available that adds more mats and accessories. There are maps of the solar system , a cityscape, and others, plus four story books that set up the play pattern and provide fun-facts. Then, of course, the robot (as nearly all of those in this article) can be combined with other toys and blocks in the house for more creative fun and challenges.
This type of robot has been around for at least fifty years or more, but has become more sophisticated each year. I first tricked my younger brother Tony into buying one that appeared to work on voice command. In reality, you had spit into the faux-microphone to get it work - pretty disgusting! The disconnect between what was in the ad and what was in the box is one of the reasons I got into reviewing products in the first place.
If size matters, your kids will be blow-away by Mebo. It looks like a white Martian rover, and is one of the biggest robots I've tested. It rolls around on six wheels, has a robotic arm more complicated than I've seen in any toy, and a built-in camera. The whole thing is controlled via your smartphone.
Advertising claims that it can be controlled remotely over the internet. In practice, that feature was not enabled at the time I tested the product. The arm can move in many ways, but in can't pick up things that are even a pound heavy, and it is not the most dexterous of devices. We found that driving it around the house was difficult and dangerous to furniture. There is often a lag between commands and response, so the button pressing could lead to unfortunate crashes of the physical kind.
The robot comes preprogrammed to make various (often gross) noises, and you can also use it to speak remotely. However, until the internet piece is added in, the value of this is limited, since it is likely that anyone who can hear the robot will be close enough to hear you. There is no auto-recharging stand, either, so the idea of being able to turn it on wherever you are, whenever you want isn't really practical.
In short, it is a cool looking toy that really doesn't do much except act as a prop for imaginative play; not really a robot as we conceive it.
Galaxy Zega ($149 for starter set)
What happens if you combine Lazer Tag with remote controlled vehicles? You get Galaxy Zega. These smartphone-controlled tanks can operate just about anywhere in your house, but are meant to play best in battle arenas you assemble. The arenas themselves don't have any smarts. They just act as obstacle course that block the line of site of the on-board laser systems. Optional pieces, however, can be added to give power ups or serve as traps. For more info, read our full review elsewhere on the site.
AirHogs Connect ($149)
I have been hesitant to recommend remote controlled drones for kids. I'm concened about the safety hazard the spinning props can cause, the difficulty in controlling them where they can knock things over, and of course, the cost. It is one thing to loose a ten dollar kite in a tree; another thing entirely to see a three hundred dollar drone get similarly eaten.
I'm pretty excited by AirHogs Connect, an indoor drone for kids 10. Though it can fly anywhere in the house, my caveats about it causing mayhem are somewhat mitigated by the fact that it encourages play on a relatively contained, included, playmat. Precision is key in piloting this four-prop copter.
The missions involve combat and rescue. There will be weekly missions and on-line leaderboards, mixing the toy and video game experience. It all comes in a self-contained plastic briefcase that includes the charger, drone, and playmat.
As with many toy drones, this one is controlled by smartphone. The difference is that in AirHogs Connect you view your drone through the phone's camera. It reveals buildings and targets on the mat, creating an augmented reality experience that takes time and effort to master.
Disclaimer: All products in this piece have provided equipment and samples to JamesGames.com. Anki and WonderWorkshops are sponsors of some broadcast media presentations of JamesGames.com. They have no editorial control over this website.