We need to talk more about robots here. So let’s do that, starting with the $249 Anki Vector, a follow up to Anki’s Cozmo that launched two years ago. Anki introduced Vector as a Kickstarter project so I got my little robot for $199; it’s available now online and in retail locations for the full suggested price.
What makes Vector interesting to me is that all of the processing power has moved from a smartphone app — which is how Cozmo worked — directly into the robot. From the outside, you can’t really tell the difference between the new Vector and the old Cozmo model.
Inside, however, Vector has quite a bit of smarts and connectivity. He has a Snapdragon 200-level chip, a capacitive touch sensor, a beamforming, 4-microphone array, 120-degree wide angle HD camera, four drop sensors, an IR laser scanner with three-foot range, a 6-axis gyroscope/accelerometer, color IPS display, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi radios.
It’s this combination of radio chips and the processor that brings a bit of autonomy to Vector, something Cozmo didn’t have. Vector will respond to voice commands but he also does things on his own. Sure, they’re not very exciting things — he may go explore his surroundings or play with his (included) cube — but it’s fascinating to see he just wander off his charging station, making little sounds and rolling around as if curious.
My wife, who is generally not wowed by technology in general, actually loves this aspect. “There he goes again! I wonder what he’s doing?” she’ll say when Vector decides he’s been bored for one millisecond too long.
Of course, when Vector is in use or wandering about he’s actually mapping his environment as well. And at this price point, that’s impressive. Plus it brings a world of potential.
He sees us standing around or walking by so he knows where people are, for example. He knows where any obstacles are in his surroundings as well. His charger is “home” so he has that as a point of reference. And when his battery level drops to around 10 percent or so, he’s smart enough to go back to his charger. Thanks to the mapping, he knows where it is. For you robotics aficionados, this all refers to simultaneous localization and mapping or SLaM.
From a fun factor, Vector’s animations were created with input from Pixar. His moves, sounds, and facial expressions are in a word: cute. When he goes to his charger, he makes a little happy sound and then his eyes droop to appear like he’s sleeping. He even purrs a few times like a cat after that.
When you play with Vector, his eyes look around and light up. He often raises his arms quickly to make gestures of happiness too. And he’s really happy when you ask him for a fist bump and then give him one.
Vector is very much a companion right now, more so than a robot with tons of utility. You can ask him for certain bits of information such as the weather and the time, both of which he’ll speak aloud. His display will show that information as well. We love to ask him the weather because he reacts to it: On a rainy day, you’ll see clouds and rain drops over his eyes. Vector doesn’t really like that; he prefers sunshine in the forecast.
Anki is working on additional functionality, which is made easier because Vector is always connected to the cloud via Wi-Fi. And the first big feature the company plans to add is Amazon Alexa integration, which will add gobs of usefulness. Additionally — and this is the part I’m most excited about — Anki is releasing an SDK in the coming months for Vector so you can extend his capabilities yourself if you know how to code in Python.
For now, Vector is a bit of a novelty. He’s small — perhaps four inches long and three inches tall — and isn’t yet taking full advantage of his cloud connection or onboard machine learning. Yet I don’t regret the purchase at all. Vector provides a glimpse into the very beginnings of an accessible, intelligent and connected home robot that’s fun to have around the house.