If your idea of personal robotics is a Roomba caroming around the house or the bantering Star Wars duo of R2-D2 and C3PO, get ready to change your mind. There's a small Pennsylvania company that intends to change the way we think about robots. It plans to start from the bottom up with kids.
The company iLoveRobots, which was spun off in 2005 from Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) world-renowned Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, has launched a new line of toy robots that combine the best of robotics, online gaming and remote controlled (RC) toys. Called Mechatars, this trio of robots with attitude, skills and a thirst for action looks like a good bet for being a holiday hit with kids ages 6 and up.
The genius of the Mechatars is that that they connect the physical and online worlds through the company's virtual world, the Mechaverse, where kids can battle for domination with other players. The result is a seamless online-offline experience.
The company calls this blended reality.
"Our use of robotic technologies to create evolving, connected products extends the play value beyond anything previously seen at this price point," said Martin Hitch, chief executive officer of Bossa Nova Robotics, parent of iLoveRobots. "Kids love our robots because they reflect their mixed-media lifestyle. Young boys 7 to 12 will love them to death."
Mechatars are now on the shelves of major retailers such as Target, Radio Shack, Toys"R"Us and from Amazon. The suggested price is $39.99. Accessories will be priced in the neighborhood of $10, the company said.
Alpha, Wrexx and Kodar
The three robots — Alpha, Wrexx and Kodar — look like stylized animals (wolf, raptor and bear respectively) with two C-shaped legs that allow them to run quickly, wheel around and turn on a dime while keeping their center of gravity low for stability. Each has its own personality, strengths and weaknesses.
Like any good toy, the Mechatars have their own backstory. Their homeland, the Mechaverse, is under attack from a dangerous enemy known as The Swarm and the Mechatars are fighting for their freedom and to restore peace to their land.
The backstory sets the stage; kids supply the rest. They have the critical responsibility of training their Mechatars to prepare them for the fight. The more they play with and train their robot — both online and off — the more weapons, skills and abilities their Mechatars will be able to bear into battle.
Like many high-tech gadgets that have become familiar household companions such as the Internet, Mechatars have their roots in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ) research. They trace their paternity to RHEX, a six-legged robot funded by DARPA that was two-feet long, agile and capable of running on rugged terrain. Carnegie Mellon was a key player in the research.
When researchers were testing a RHEX prototype on the CMU campus, they ran into a group of four-year-olds, Hitch told BusinessNewsDaily.
"The kids went wild," he said. "There's clearly some magic in how this robot can move."
That was the birth of Bossa Nova, which licensed the technology from CMU.
"The one beauty of university research is that it's all in the public domain," said Hitch.
The biggest issues the new company faced in commercializing the technology was price and complexity. The original RHEX with all its bells and whistles cost $20,000. It took two years, but the fledging company figured out how to scale back complexity and bring the price down to $39.99. And it added the magic of interactivity—the killer app for consumer robotics.
"Commercialization has taken a long time," Hitch said. "The challenge was how to cut costs while maintaining the magic of the product.
"Every time you add complexity it layers costs on."
The solution was to amputate four of the original legs and move the heavy computational lifting to the cloud. In addition to shaving costs, it also allowed the creation of a robotic toy that was capable of evolving and learning.
The cloud augments the capabilities you'd have on any physical machine, Hitch said. Pricing limits the computational power you can have on board, so you augment that with the cloud. It also allows the creation of a seamless spectrum of play from physical to virtual environments, with no disconnect in between.
Robots with legs
In Hollywood terms, it’s the cloud that gives Mechatars legs. The robots evolve over time as the kids play with them and level up their skills (that's gamespeak for reaching the next level). That level up information is sent to the cloud, said Hitch, where it's used to create software updates that allow the robot to evolve and adapt to the user's preferences and behaviors and undertake new missions. The Mechatars, in essence, grow up with their users.
"You want to grow your character," Hitch said. "You do this through missions."
"We're the first company that has successfully connected physical products with virtual environments," he said. "We're the first company that has been able to make our product evolve over time."
When people think about robots in the home, it's either kids' toys or the Roomba that cleans your floor, Hitch said. The mission of Bossa Nova
Robotics and iLoveRobots is to change that. To do so, they're taking a bottom-up approach that starts with kids.
"We dealing with consumers who are the ultimate early adopters," he said. "Kids aren't scared of technology and they're not scared of breaking technology. We have a tremendous opportunity to produce a product that crosses two divides. We're crossing from digital to analog. If we can make this a success, there's no question there'll be a lot of trying to get a piece of the action. Toys are a stepping stone for us. In 2020, we expect to see in-home robots that go beyond the toy industry."
Hitch echoes of ambitions of one of the company's founders, Sarjoun Skaff.
"For us, connecting the robots is really the first step of putting robots in people's home and making them part of our life," he said.
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.