Games and toys are undergoing a revolution. New technology enables toy makers and game developers to integrate physical products with virtual worlds. This can be as simple as Skylanders and Lego figures being used to unlock on-screen characters, or as complex as Air Hogs Connect that use augmented reality to employ physical drone flying in an on-screen gaming landscape.
It’s a sector that’s exploding with innovation and risk. There are winners in the short term with on-trend tech toys often selling out at Christmas, while other companies focus on the longer game with products iterating and testing market desire for different styles of interactive gaming toys.
Anki is an example of this, taking things one step at a time despite being very well funded by venture capital. In 2013 it launched its first robot car game, Anki Drive, where automated smart cars raced round a printed mat controlled by player’s smart phones. This was then updated the year after with Anki Overdrive, which added more cars, a magnetic clip-together track system and better video game-style modes and characters.
It was only at the end of last year that we really got sight of Anki’s grander ambitions with its launch of the robotic gaming character Cozmo. Bringing to mind on-screen robots the likes of R2-D2 or Wall-E, Cozmo is an interactive robotic character that employs video game character animation in a toy rather than on the screen.
Cozmo is beguiling because he interacts with players based on a series of artificial wants and needs rather than pre-programmed linear story. More than this he can see with a small camera in his head and knows when a particular person is present in the room. The result is surprisingly human behaviour.
For instance, while he goes about different tasks his need for connection slowly diminishes. When this gets too low he pauses to look up and check you are still there. Once this connection quotient is refilled he goes back to what he was doing — much like a small child.
It draws on a range of technology expertise from robotics to animation and cinematic audio. But it’s how these things are brought together that has been exciting the educational, healthcare and maker community.
Boris Sofman, co-founder of Anki, spoke to FamilyGamerTV recently about the possibilities for the tech, which will open the door to robotics enthusiast and animators to put Cozmo to work for educational and performance ends.
“We’re releasing an SDK, to enable people to control the high level robotics to create new experiences with Cozmo,” says Sofman. “We’re looking at parallel threads, roboticist and computer vision people, as well as autism research. At Carnegie Mellon University there’s a variety of departments using this for class projects. We’re exploring some routes to Cozmo being the foundation for STEM education and programming lessons.”
Certainly, applying the characterful interactions of Cozmo in different contexts could revolutionise how we interact with machines. It’s in the area of Autism research that Cozmo’s ability (and need) to establish eye contact and connection before and during other interactions offers unique avenues of research. It’s making many reassess what sort of company Anki is.
“We had the idea for Cozmo back in 2011 during conversation with early investors. We knew from the beginning the company isn’t really a toy company but more of a robotics and AI company, where these entertainment products are an entry point to build other applications.
“A lot of the excitement about [Anki from investors] is that we’re applying these tools and technologies that the traditional toy industry hasn’t had access to… We’re using entertainment as a staging ground to develop technologies like personality, interactions and behavioural interactions, that if we were to make a product in the home or healthcare for example a lot of these elements (personal connection, faced interaction, planning and manipulation in an environment) all become possible… Products can be incredibly successful entertainment products can lead to much wider applications.”
These are grand claims that could be dismissed if it weren’t for Anki’s track record of delivering sophisticated tech toys that make good on ambitious promises. But as ever with breaking new ground, with this comes a considerable risk.
“It’s always a challenge with hardware, inventory and physical products. We mitigate risk by working on products without direct competition, where we have a unique advantage… We try to be thoughtful and not bite off more than we can chew.”
It’s clear that Sofman has a considerable road map for future products. “We are starting to think about what are the other types of products and categories we want to go into. With Cozmo we’ve developed an infrastructure to develop physical characters that can be used to make other characters. We’re starting to think of this as the first of a line of characters.”
One lucrative direction for this extension could be creating physical incarnations of well know animated characters — as we have seen with Sphero and BB-8. “When you have something physical the level of attachment is amplified, just imagine what could be done with the beautiful characters from animated films.”
We saw a similar turnkey moment for the augmented reality game Ingress. It wasn’t until the Pokémon licence was added to the game that it became a mass-market product. “It’s a great example because Ingress was functionally the same product. You need to balance that with building our brand of Anki and our own characters. But there’s an undeniable appeal to think of this as a platform for physical characters to come to life.”
While there are many exciting directions for Anki to take things, it’s many of the further reaching applications of this unique combination of technology, skills and artistry that are most exciting. It will be as fascinating to see what applications the community put Cozmo to over the coming years, as where Anki will develop its growing line of products.
Andy Robertson is a freelance technology expert for national press and broadcast media. He also runs the Family Gamer TV YouTube channel