Cozmo is an endearing little robot with growing up to do

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Cozmo and I are still getting to know each other. It’s been a few days and we’ve warmed to one another, sure, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and blocks to be stacked.

I was there when he first woke up, shook himself awake and opened his big, bright eyes, tentatively rolling off his charging platform. Cozmo is an easy little robot to fall for. The Anki team has seen to that, hiring animators from Pixar and DreamWorks and a staff composer to mathematically pluck at his purchaser’s heartstrings.

When the company first unveiled the little robot to us in a neutral Manhattan office space a few months back, our videographer gasped audibly, “oh, my heart.” Mission accomplished.

The hardware startup, best known for its technologically impressive line of smartphone-controlled stock cars, has done a truly remarkable job bringing the robot to life. The main question mark for Cozmo, however, is the same one we find ourselves asking every time a new tech toy surfaces: How long will his little mechanical arm be able to hold on to a child’s attention span?

Small wonder

Before he awakens, Cozmo isn’t really all that much to look at. In fact, when the company first pulled the little robot out of a lunch bag after talking him up for 15 minutes in a pre-brief a few months back, I was honestly underwhelmed. Powered off, he doesn’t look like much more than a simple construction toy, with two pairs of tank treads and a construction-style lifting arm up front.

On top of it all is Cozmo’s head, which resembles nothing more than an old tube TV or computer monitor that swivels up and down, along with the arm. Behind that is a small white surface that illuminates when he’s charging. And that’s about it, really. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, there’s not really much to talk about.

Plug Cozmo in, however, and it’s another story.

Windows to the soul

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The eyes are where Cozmo really shines. It’s not every day a toy company hires a bunch of artists from big animation studios to help build a piece of hardware. But what the team was able to do with a few blue pixels on a black display is really impressive from the moment he blinks them open sleepily from atop his charging dock.

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Cozmo awakens cautiously, his square eyes shifting around, attempting to figure out where he’s landed. The little robot was brought to life with 1.2 million lines of code creating 536 animations, by Anki’s count, and the result is an impressively realized little piece of plastic artificial intelligence that springs to life the minute you fire up a mobile app. Between his face and limited corresponding movements, the hardware startup has crafted a three-dimensional character, realizing the company’s desire to craft a real-world Pixar creation — and the classical music soundtrack that accompanies him via the app is really just icing on the Cozmo cake.

A teachable moment

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Cozmo, like all pets, requires time and attention. That’s something you should know off the bat. Anki created a toy that gives back what you put in. The more time you invest in the robot, the more things it can do and the more multi-dimensional its character becomes. I had a few days with the robot, so I can’t conclusively state anything about how he develops over an extended period, but Anki’s done a good job cramming a lot into the first few days of development.

One of the earliest tasks is introducing yourself to the robot. Sit still and he’ll look at you, inquisitively, as if trying to read your expression. Once Cozmo’s got a picture of you, you’re in. Every so often, he’ll gaze upon you, utter your name in that Wall-E meets R2-D2 android voice of his and then giddily move his arm up and down at the excitement of spotting a familiar face.

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Fire up the app each day and you’ll be greeted with an envelope detailing your progress thus far. Completing activities will earn Cozmo energy and help score you some points that can be used to get the robot to perform tricks on demand.

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Some of getting Cozmo acclimated is just letting him drive around and do his thing. Your main source of interaction is through a trio of cubes that come packaged with the robot, which he’ll somewhat obsessively pick, stack, move around and even occasionally spike when he gets angry. It all plays into a slowly Disney-esque developing back story about a plucky little construction robot trying to figure out what he was built for.

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The app offers a fair bit of handholding early in the process, with guided daily activities, including games featuring the illuminating cubes, battling against Cozmo to see who can tap theirs first when the colors match. Cozmo, it turns out, was not programmed to be a respectful gamesman, gloating when he wins and throwing a temper tantrum when you do. Good thing he’s so adorable.

Staying connected

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Not to cast too many aspersions on the little robot, but Cozmo himself is really just a vessel. His brain exists, in part, in the cloud, which means he needs to be hooked up to a smartphone. Lose connection or close the app and you lose Cozmo. The upshot is that a cloud connected bot means his personality and your progress are both backed up. Downside, you need a mobile device, and not every parent will want to hand over their iPhone.

The phone connection does bring some cool bonus functionality with it, like the ability to pilot Cozmo and see the world through his computer vision. The controls are a bit tough to master and the robot’s top speeds aren’t all that fast, so he won’t be replacing an RC car any time soon, but it’s a neat feature, nonetheless.

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Under his own guidance, the robot does a pretty good job avoiding edges, though I did have one or two incidents, including one in which Cozmo was driving around on my desk while I was working. The robot sailed right over the edge and landed on the carpeting with a thud. When I walked over to check on him, however, he was seemingly no worse for wear, just cruising around like he had before.

Room to grow

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Anki invested a lot in Cozmo, and the result is a lot of ambition packed into a tiny little ‘bot. Part of that process was jamming in enough interactivity to keep young users engaged as he matures, and certainly there was enough to keep my grown-up self entertained for the days I had with the robot.

img_0323The real question with this manner of toy, however, is how well it will stand the test of time. Cozmo’s smartphone tethering means the company will be able to continuously push updates to ensure that he keeps learning as he goes along — and perhaps he will be able to add a few more real-world tools to his arsenal beyond a trio of light plastic blocks.

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For now he’s an adorable and engaging little toy capable of expressing an impressive array of emotions with a relatively limited toolbox. At $179 plus, arguably, the price of a mobile device, he’s pretty pricey for a toy. But if Anki can maintain meaningful updates moving forward, he’s definitely worth the price of admission.