Science fiction has promised us robots smart enough to walk, talk, and even occasionally save the day. But in reality, dabbling in robotics still requires a great deal of engineering and programming know-how. That's not the case with the Ozobot, though. It can't fetch your groceries, but programming where it roams and how it behaves is as easy as doodling using colored markers.

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First shown at CES earlier this year, shortly afterwards the Ozobot was made available for pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign that never achieved its funding goal. But that was more of a minor speedbump than a derailment because the Ozobot is finally available for purchase for $50—plus the cost of a small set of Crayola markers.

Why markers? Because except for a microUSB charging port, the Ozobot has no way to connect to your computer or communicate with a mobile device. There's no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth either, so uploading a program or commands to the bot just isn't possible. Instead, the underside of the Ozobot features a series of sensors for detecting color and contrast, allowing it to follow paths drawn on a white piece of paper, or generated by an accompanying tablet app.

There is some measure of artificial intelligence baked into Ozobot's firmware, allowing it to make random decisions on where to turn when the line it's following ends up in an intersection. But Ozobot can also be told how to behave differently by simply introducing specific colored sequences into the path it's following. For example, if it rolls over a sequence of blue, red, blue, it will turn around and reverse direction. Where as blue, green, blue will instead cause it to increase speed.

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To program and control the Ozobot, the only real skill you need is the ability to draw a line about a quarter-of-an-inch thick. But if you can't handle that, the accompanying iOS and Android apps can automatically draw them for you on a tablet's display, and even use those colored codes to generate games like mazes and other puzzles for the tiny robot to solve. You might think there's not a lot of entertainment to be had with a line-following automaton, but Ozobot's creators have come up with some clever ways to add value.

As long as you're not expecting an R2-D2-like sidekick experience, the minuscule Ozobot is surprisingly capable given its size. It's almost like watching a ping-pong ball come to life, just don't expect it survive longer than a single round of beer pong. [Ozobot]

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