We found Anki’s debut product, Anki Drive, to be a bit underwhelming when it appeared back in 2013 — the iOS-driven racing car game was extremely innovative from a pure technology standpoint, but lacked enough staying power to hold our interest, especially for the price. However, with Anki Drive the company proved it was a contender in this product space, and Anki Drive definitely whet our appetites in anticipation of what the company would come up with next, and Anki didn’t disappoint: following a couple of years of research and development, Anki unveiled a new robotic pet, Cozmo, in the U.S. last fall, with a wider international rollout beginning this week with Cozmo’s Canadian debut. From a practical standpoint, Cozmo is a fundamentally different product from Anki Drive, although it’s obvious that both products build on the company’s core expertise in artificial intelligence.
Cozmo is a small tread-wheeled robot about the size of a hamster with a forklift like arm on the front, a head that tilts up and down and an OLED screen where Cozmo’s digital eyes — and much of its personality — appears. The Cozmo package also includes a charging base and USB power adapter and three cubes that function as Cozmo’s toys and are used to engage in several interactive games with Cozmo. Anki tells us that Cozmo is made up over 340 individual parts, and run by 1.4 million lines of code from the companion iOS app. The OLED display is also capable of displaying over 1,000 animations. The development process behind Cozmo also makes for an interesting story in its own right; although Anki was originally founded by three Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute graduates, in putting together Cozmo the company realized that to give the robot an engaging personality, it would be necessary to expand its horizons beyond artificial intelligence experts and mechanical engineering teams to also include world-class animators, sound engineers, and game designers. The result is that Cozmo doesn’t just perform tasks, but actually “expresses itself” in the form of face-like animations on the OLED display and cute little noises that convey emotions like delight, curiosity, frustration, and more.
Cozmo is designed to work in tandem with his companion iOS app, which provides most of Cozmo’s interactivity and intelligence. Cozmo communicates with your device via Wi-Fi, broadcasting its own Wi-Fi network that you’ll need to connect to each time you want to interact and play with Cozmo — you’ll see the Wi-Fi password on Cozmo’s face the first time you set him up. The first time you fire up the app, it will take you through a basic setup process to initialize Cozmo and his cubes, give him a quick charge on the charging base, and update his firmware, if necessary. Once Cozmo is ready to go, you can place him and his cubes on an open, flat play space, such as a table, and he’ll immediately begin exploring his surroundings. Cozmo does his best not to fall off the edge of the table, but you’ll want to keep an eye on him just in case as he’s not perfect at avoiding falls.
Cozmo’s personality comes out almost right away as he begins exploring. He’ll make some noises and facial expressions, examine his cubes, and even try to identify faces. However, the app will continue to take you through the process of training Cozmo, beginning with teaching it to recognize the faces of you and other family members, unlocking the first interactive game, and teaching Cozmo his first skill. Additional games and skills are unlocked using an in-game currency known as “bits” which you can earn by completing daily goals or charging up Cozmo’s “emotion chip” simply by playing with him, or even just letting him perform activities by himself. Once you’ve taught Cozmo to recognize the faces of your family members, he’ll also occasionally look up when wandering around by himself, articulating their name when he sees the face of a person he recognizes. It’s a cute feature that adds an extra level of personality.
Cozmo’s three cubes are the basis for most of the interactive apps that you can use to play with Cozmo. Each cube is powered by its own internal battery used to illuminate four LEDs on the top edges, and include a unique patterned sticker on each of the six sides that helps Cozmo to visually identify each cube and its orientation. By himself, Cozmo will pick up cubes and move them around, and as you unlock additional skills, he’ll learn to stack cubes, work out with them, knock them over, and even build a pyramid from all three. Seven apps provide ways in which you can interact with Cozmo, with three games that allow you to play with Cozmo using the cubes.
The first game, Quick Tap, is a reflex game where you compete against Cozmo by being the fastest to tap your cube when both light up with matching colors, while Keepaway challenges you to tease Cozmo with a cube and yank it away before he can tap on it, and Memory Match is a traditional colors-and-sounds pattern-matching game. The “Meet Cozmo” app is used to introduce Cozmo to people so he can later identify their faces by name, and a “Cozmo Says” app lets you type in things that Cozmo will speak back. The games are quite a bit of fun for what they are, and Quick Tap in particular includes the ability for two players to compete against each other and Cozmo, as well as increasing difficulty settings that start with a single color on each cube and work up to matching four-color patterns. Due to Cozmo’s artificial intelligence, he also gets better at the games the more he plays them, so while you’ll likely find them a bit easy at first, that won’t be the case for very long. Further, Cozmo expresses his personality even amongst the game play, expressing excitement when he wins, and frustration, or disappointment, or sadness when he loses.
There’s also an “Explorer” app that lets you take direct control of Cozmo, viewing the world through his eyes and maneuvering him around. In addition to manually controlling Cozmo, he’ll also visually identify faces and cubes, allowing you to perform an action such as greeting a person or picking up a cube with a single button press. A Night Vision mode is also available so you can help Cozmo navigate even in a dark room. When Cozmo is playing by himself, he’ll also often ask you to play a specific game, sometimes setting it up first, and while you have the option of saying no, Cozmo will clearly show his sadness or disappointment if you do so. In addition to humans, Cozmo can also detect dogs and cats and interact with them appropriately.
Anki has also added a new Code Lab app that lets you construct detailed programmatic routines for Cozmo using an easy visual programming language. Code Lab allows for a myriad of creative possibilities, and you don’t have to be a coder to take advantage of it, as it’s really just a matter of dragging and dropping predefined “blocks” into place to string together a routine. Blocks include actions ranging from simple movement (go forward, turn left, tilt head, raise lift, etc) and actions (e.g. pick up cube) to creating animations on Cozmo’s OLED face and even creating event triggers such as waiting to see a specific person’s face — even down to whether they’re smiling or frowning — or wait for a cube to be tapped. This expands on the Cozmo SDK that’s also included for more serious coders by providing a way for pretty much anybody to develop cool little routines and mini-games that Cozmo can follow.
In addition to the seven apps, Cozmo also includes ten skills that you can upgrade for bits to expand Cozmo’s abilities. Cozmo begins with the ability to pick up a cube by himself, and the initial tutorial will take you through teaching him to stack cubes as well. Additional skills include pouncing on fingers, rolling a cube, knocking over stacks of cubes, popping a wheelie, working out with a cube, doing a fist bump, building a pyramid, and playing peekaboo. Once Cozmo has learned a new skill, you can manually trigger Cozmo to perform it by using another in-game currency known as “Sparks” (also awarded from charging Cozmo’s emotion chip), however he will simply perform skills by himself while wandering about, adding an extra dimension to his personality as the number of things he can do increases — the Cozmo app provides a status bar at the bottom showing what Cozmo is currently doing or thinking, and any cubes involved will light up green, giving you an idea of whatever he’s up to when he’s playing by himself. You can also still interact with Cozmo in these modes simply by moving his cubes around, or turning them on their sides — Cozmo likes his cubes upright, so he’s more likely to roll cubes that are improperly oriented, for example.
There are also some hidden things that Cozmo does that will show up from time to time when he’s playing on his own, for example, sometimes he’ll get hiccups, requiring you to turn him on his back to cure them, or you may get a notification that Cozmo is “guarding his cubes” — he’ll take a nap, complete with snoozing sounds, and you’ll be challenged to invert all three of his cubes without waking him up. Since most users will have unlocked all of Cozmo’s skills and apps within about a week or two of serious use, these extra little things provide a nice way for Cozmo to continue to surprise and delight users, and we expect that Anki will add more of these features as the Cozmo app gets further updated.
We’d say Anki has definitely met its goal here of creating a robot with personality, as Cozmo’s cuteness is hard to express in words. Suffice it to say that our seven-year-old daughter instantly bonded with the little guy, to the point of insisting on gently petting him and even “tucking him in” by putting a small blanket over him and saying “Good night, Cozmo, sleep well” every time he went into his charger. Anki’s use of world-class animators in putting together Cozmo’s personality also shows — the resemblance to Pixar’s famous WALL-E is absolutely uncanny, and as strange as it sounds, having Cozmo rolling around on our dining room table as we were writing this review actually made for good and amusing company (although we’d be lying if we said the review wouldn’t have been finished sooner if we’d simply let Cozmo sleep).
Of course, the burning question for a device like this always comes down to whether the features justify the price — there’s no doubt in our minds that Cozmo hits it out of the park in terms of both innovation and fun, but most would consider it on the expensive side when viewed as simply a “toy.” However, we don’t think that’s a fair way to look at Cozmo, as there’s a lot more to him than that. In addition to the “virtual pet” aspect, which is compelling in itself, Cozmo also provides a great educational platform that will encourage kids to learn to code as they teach Cozmo new tricks and interact with him beyond what the built-in apps offer, and Anki has already demonstrated that it will be continuing to expand Cozmo’s horizons through updates to the iOS app, both in terms of the skills and apps as well as the underlying AI that will only serve to increase the fun and cuteness of interacting with Cozmo. We think Anki has hit it out of the park on this one, and can’t wait to see what the company comes up with next.
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