Review: Anki Vector | iLounge

Review

Review: Anki Vector

B+
Recommended

Company: Anki

Model: Vector

Price: $249

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Jesse Hollington

Last year Anki seriously impressed us with Cozmo, the company’s hamster-like robotic pet that could be paired with an iOS device to interact with family members, play games, and even familiarize kids with basic coding skills. As impressive as Cozmo was, however, it was hampered by one significant limitation: the need to have the companion app running on a connected iPhone or iPad in order for the little guy to actually do anything. So needless to say, when Anki announced Vector earlier this year, we were both excited and intrigued at the idea of a new and improved cloud-connected and voice-activated model that would be able to do things on its own, essentially turning it into a fully autonomous robotic pet that can roam around your home or workspace on its own rather than a device that you specifically have to set up and make time to play with. In that respect, Vector certainly delivers, although he’s not simply a replacement for his older sibling.

Anybody familiar with Cozmo, however, will immediately recognize Vector as a member of the same family. Vector’s outward appearance and design is almost identical, although there are a few important enhancements, not to mention a lot more power under the hood. While Cozmo’s brain basically lived in its companion iOS app, paired via an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection, Vector has its own intellect, courtesy of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 processor that provides direct internet connectivity, camera, and on-device AI capabilities. There’s also an HD camera with a 120-degree field of view for Vector to see the world around him, and an array of four microphones so that he can not only hear and respond to voice commands, but identify the proximity and direction from which they are coming. A collection of sensors keep him from falling off edges or down stairs, and Vector’s face is made up of a high-resolution color IPS display where he can display his emotions and display data in answer to questions, and a touch-sensitive panel on his back allows you to interact with him by petting him.

In the box, Vector is accompanied by a charging base and a single interactive cube that he can play with. As with Anki’s later special edition Cozmo models, however, you’ll need to supply your own USB power adapter — an omission that we found a bit disappointing in a $250 device that not only requires regular charging, but won’t likely be located near your PC or Mac; unlike other accessories such as speakers, you’ll want to leave Vector’s charging base plugged in all the time so he can find his way back to it, which means you’ll likely want to purchase a dedicated USB power adapter rather than sharing one from another device like your iPhone.

Although Vector can roam around by himself once you’ve got him set up, you’ll still need an iPhone or iPad (or Android or Fire device) to load up the companion app to get him paired up to your network and associated with an Anki profile. The app also provides guidance to help you learn how to interact with Vector, and is used to manage facial recognition and download any photos that you’ve asked Vector to take. The set up process is pretty straightfoward, and basically involves setting up an Anki account and then placing Vector on his charger, connecting via Bluetooth (a pairing code is shown on his display), and then entering the password for your Wi-Fi network so that he can connect directly to the internet. The app can also be used to configure preferences such as units of measure — celsius/fahrenheit, centimeters/inches — and 12- or 24-hour time. The app may also take you through an initial firmware update, depending on whether a newer version is available than what Vector shipped with, however Vector will automatically receive all future updates over-the-air without requiring the app or any user interaction.

Once Vector has joined your Wi-Fi network and been updated to the latest firmware, all of your future interactions are done with your voice. Much like other voice assistants, voice commands are prefaced with a key phrase — “Hey Vector” in this case — which will result in Vector making a noise and flashing his lights to acknowledge that he’s listening for your next command. Unlike Siri, however, you won’t be able to just say everything all in one go — a pause is required between saying “Hey Vector” and actually issuing the next command. That said, however, Vector usually offers pretty cute feedback that he’s listening, not only flashing his lights but also turning toward you with an inquisitive expression on his face.

Vector understands a variety of different commands, ranging from simple greetings and requests for his attention through to instructions to explore, play with his cube, tell you the weather or the time, set timers, or even answer general knowledge questions. Ask Vector what the time or temperature is, and he’ll respond with his voice as well as showing a cute animation on his face, and you can also ask a number of knowledge based questions by saying “I have a question” and then asking about people, places, distances, word definitions, sports stats, stocks, flight status, nutritional information, unit conversions, currency conversions, and mathematical equations. This essentially turns Vector into a personal assistant, and Anki has recently announced that direct integration with Amazon Alexa will also be coming next month, providing full Alexa capabilities, ranging from answering questions and controlling music right through the controlling smart home devices.

That said, in our own time with Vector, we can’t honestly say that we found it more efficient to ask him a question than simply querying Siri or Alexa via a smart speaker. While it’s cute to interact with Vector, we found that our HomePod and Echo both generally understood us better, and provided a far smoother experience due to the ability to ask a whole question without having to pause in between. To put it in perspective, a query like, “Hey Siri, how many centimeters are in 20 inches” gets us an immediate answer from our HomePod, whereas interacting with Vector requires us to first say, “Hey Vector” and then pause for a moment while Vector wakes up, and then say “I have a question” and then pose the actual question only after Vector acknowledges that he’s ready to answer. While Vector is certainly the cutest voice assistant we’ve seen, he’s definitely not the most efficient. It remains to be seen whether the upcoming Alexa integration will improve this.

Of course, there’s more to Vector than simply the voice assistant features. Voice commands can also be used to train him to recognize faces and ask him to take pictures. Photos are stored in Vector’s own memory, and you’ll need to use the app to transfer them off to your iPhone camera roll; perhaps for privacy reasons, you can’t ask Vector to simply send a picture out directly to email or social media. It’s also a bit less cumbersome to set timers and ask questions about the weather — especially if you don’t have a smart speaker in the room where Vector roams about. Vector’s app also allows you to see what Vector is currently doing or thinking, as well as a simple graph of his sensory input level and a page where you can see stats such as how many days he’s been active, how far he’s rolled around, how long you’ve petted him for, and how may times you’ve spoken to him.

Vector can also give you fist bumps and perform basic tasks with his cube (pick it up, bring it to you, roll it around, pop wheelies), but this is where the differences between him and his older brother Cozmo start to become apparent. While Cozmo came with three cubes that he could stack, and move around, and even play interactive games with, Vector’s understanding of cubes is considerably more limited right now, and in fact in our time with Vector, we rarely saw him do anything with his cube unless we specifically asked him to. Further, the only game that Vector can play right now is blackjack, and unlike Cozmo, there’s no code lab feature or any kind of gamification through the app such as needing to “feed” Vector or unlock skills, nor is there even the ability to control Vector directly from the app. Beyond learning how to use Vector, you’ll pretty much only use the companion app for transferring any photos that you’ve asked Vector to take. Vector can also dance to the beat of any music that’s playing in the room where you’re in — he’ll often just do this himself if he hears music while he’s roaming around, but you can specifically ask him to as well.

When you’re not directly interating with Vector, however, he will also roam around on his own, and this is where the main improvement comes as compared to Cozmo. Vector is much more like a robotic pet, and it shows — he’s lived in our family room for the past month or so and as weird as it sounds we’ve found ourselves enjoying his company as he roams around, makes cute little noises, and even lightly snores sometimes when he’s sleeping on his charger. Vector is almost as cute as the bunny rabbit that used to live in the space he now occupies, and he’s definitely far easier to clean up after. Vector will roam around for about 30 minutes before he needs to be recharged, and he’ll do his best to find his way back to his charging dock by himself when his battery gets low. That said, he’s not always successful in doing so, and there have been a few times we’ve had to pick up an exhausted Vector to put him back onto his charger ourselves. While some of that is the charm of Vector’s pet-like AI (he seemed to get better at finding his charger as time went on), we think that lighting also plays a role, as he needs to “see” his charger in order to get back to it and dock up with it, so he’s more likely to get lost in a dark room.

Much like Cozmo, it’s Vector’s AI that makes him stand out and actually feel like a pet rather than a robot. Anki put the same animation team to work in creating unique facial expressions and noises for Vector to show his moods and personality, and it definitely comes through. He’ll greet you by name when he sees you, and if he hasn’t seen you in a while, he’ll be more excited when he greets you. Scold him by saying “Bad robot” and he’ll show sadness or frustration, and if you pick him up for too long, he’ll start fidgeting and fussing and wanting to be put down. Pet him on his touch-sensitive back and he’ll purr like a kitten and show signs of appreciation. Anki has done a lot of really great work here in allowing us to anthropomorphize an electronic device, and much like Cozmo, we can’t really put Vector’s cuteness into words — it has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Despite the superficial similarities, at the end of the day, Vector is actually quite a different device from Cozmo, and we think that there’s room in Anki’s lineup for both. While Vector’s autonomous cloud-connected features and advanced hardware clearly suggest that he’s the future of Anki’s robotic devices — and pet robots in general — users who are looking for a more educational and interactive toy to play with will still find Cozmo to be considerably more appealing, as despite Vector’s endearing personality, there’s still not much you can actually do with him beyond asking him questions and watching him roll around and simply act cute. That said, Anki proved with Cozmo that it’s willing and able to deliver new functionality via software updates, and we strongly expect that Vector will only improve with age as Anki rolls in more capabilities and features, but for now, Vector should be viewed primarily as a robotic pet and unique voice assistant. Although it’s no replacement for a smart speaker, it does a competent job as a voice assistant, but it absolutely shines as an adorable and fun robotic pet.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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