My dog hates the robot. When I sit on the floor to play with the robot, the dog gets up with a huff and comes over. His tail wags, and he gets in my face. When I avoid him because I have a robot to review he...sits on the robot. It makes upset little noises from under his rear.
When it’s not being sat on by 100 pounds of labrador retriever, Cozmo, the robot, is being hunted by the cat. His eyes follow the robot’s every move warily. He rarely swipes at the bot. He just studies it. Waiting.
These animals have figured out something I’ve only just realized. We’re on the cusp of having companion robots—and they might just replace our pets. Cozmo, a new toy robot from Anki, is the latest, and one of the best. It moves us towards that animal dander-free future. And unlike previous pet robots, like Aibo, the creepy robo-dog Sony discontinued last year, Cozmo is cheap. Aibo cost over $1500. Cozmo costs just $180.
Anki, the company behind Cozmo, is primarily known for its cool toy racecars. Yet according to Anki CEO Boris Sofman, the car system was always a means to an end—a way for Anki to make some cash so it could primarily focus on its real passion project, Cozmo. Anki has spent the last few years developing the toy robot. It hired Pixar animators to make sure Cozmo has a friendly and expressive face. The animators also studied Cozmo’s design and made sure the robot moves in a manner more similar to Wall-E than Aibo. It also developed a savvy AI for Cozmo, so the bot can recognize faces and a small spectrum of emotions.
Cozmo’s ability to recognize faces is what makes it so endearing. Like a real pet, it has preferences. It prefers my co-worker to me, and warms up faster to my roommate than my brother. It seems to spark something chemical in a person when it picks you out of a crowd and rolls towards you, gurgling your name in its little gremlin voice. You can’t help but love the little guy. Through AI and robotics Anki has created a creature that makes choices.
But Cozmo is currently limited in its interactions. To use Cozmo you have to have the Cozmo app on your iOS or Android device. You connect to Cozmo’s wi-fi and then follow a fair simply setup procedure. It involves taking Cozmo’s cubes (three are included with purchase) and placing them where Cozmo can see them. Cozmo uses the cubes, and the faces of humans to make itself spatially aware of its surrounding.
Cozmo always boots up the same way. Music plays over the app and Cozmo’s little eyes open slowly—as if the robot is drowsy and being pulled slowly from a deep sleep. Then it rolls out of its charging cradle and the music changes.
Cozmo is now in play mode, and there are four “games” to choose from. You can teach Cozmo new faces, which involves staring at the robot until it memorizes your terrorizing visage. You can enjoy “Freeplay,” which lets you drive Cozmo around with the app. Then there are the two games that involve cubes. They’re the games you’ll play most often with Cozmo. One is a Tap game in which you each have a cube and have to strike it when the lights are the same. Cozmo will try to fake you out in Tap and get you to hit cubes when you shouldn’t, and Cozmo will pout if you beat it at the game, sometimes even throwing a tantrum and tossing its cube away.
The other game is Keepaway. You have a cube and you slowly push it towards Cozmo. If Cozmo hits the cube before you can snatch it away Cozmo wins. And the little bastard wins a lot. Then it gloats, rolling around the table and crowing to itself, and in the process fostering even more affection from you. After all, who doesn’t love an adorable little robot rolling around humming to itself because it beat a human at a game.
Cozmo also has some “habits” that you can teach it, like stacking cubes, knocking over cubes, and using cubes to pop sweet wheelies.
You teach Cozmo the habits via the app. You can also have Cozmo show off learned habits by selecting them and spending “Sparks,” an in-app currency received by interacting with Cozmo. There are plans for future habits, but many of them, like building pyramids, are greyed out. Anki promises to activate them at a later date.
The sparse set of interactions currently available to Cozmo can seem frustrating—especially because the robot costs $180. Yet the potential of Cozmo is extraordinary. It’s a smart creature and its behaviors never feel scripted. There’s that knowledge always lurking beneath the surface of every interaction—that Cozmo is just a toy robot and ultimately incapable of the meaningful relationships you might foster with a living pet.
Yet that knowledge rarely makes itself present. You can play with Cozmo for twenty minutes and forget all about it being a toy. It feels...real.
And if, for some reason, Cozmo doesn’t feel real enough to you then you can change the robot’s behavoir. It has an open SDK, so the potential to interact with Cozmo further is extraordinary. Using the regular Cozmo app you can actually access all the software guts of the robot. So you can see how it tracks paths or recognizes faces and build on that—or use it to create you own quick scripts. If you want it to scream when you power it on and it sees your brother...you can do that.
Interacting with the SDK isn’t user friendly, though. You’ll need a knowledge of the Python coding language or a willingness to learn Python in order to take that next step.
And that, plus its small size and limited play features, keeps Cozmo firmly in the realm of toys. This robot isn’t going to transform your life or supplant your dog—as much as your dog might fear that. It’s a toy to be busted out when you have guests over, or left to play with your kids (eight and up). And it’s an incredible learning tool for anyone interested in programming or robotics. For $180 Anki Cozmo gives you a glimpse of a future your pets should fear—and it’s pretty damn whimsical.
- Will instantly charm anyone when it recognizes them and says their name
- Pets do not like it
- Has 4 games and multiple trainable “habits”
- Requires a smartphone
- SDK means you can manipulate its AI as you see fit
- $180 is a great price for a toy that gives you a glimpse of the future of robotics