Anki’s ‘robot for the home’ is like Alexa on wheels

He might be small but Vector the robot is helping the Anki robotics company take a big step into the home robotics market, or so it hopes.

Anki, a toy and entertainment robotics company based in San Francisco has developed “a robot for the home,” a smallfour-inchh tall robot, that looks like a small bulldozer but with a personality.

Vector – Anki’s newest robot

The company is attempting to meld its toy experience with the future of having robots perform everyday tasks in homes and this new robot named Vector is much smarter than the companies previous toy robots; it has built-in artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning capabilities that enable it to have a personality and interact with people.

When we typically think of in-home robots we have lofty dreams of sci-fi movies or shows, like Star Wars’ R2-D2 or the Jetsons’ Rosie the Robot, however the current reality is products like the Roomba vacuum or more stationary AI devices like Amazon’s Echo or a Google Home.

Anki’s Vector is more BB-8 than it is R2 in design, and in purpose it’s akin to Alexa inside a small robot, though without all the capabilities of the current smart home devices. (Anki is not powered by Alexa, but performs some of the same functions.)

So what exactly can this robot do? Well, had the opportunity to meet with Vector and here’s what we learned.

Vector, available in Canada on October 12th, responds similarly to smart home devices, the user can grab its attention by saying “Hey Vector” and it responds to questions, can tell the weather, set a timer or take a photo and for fun it can be asked for a fist bump and will even ‘purr’ when the touch sensor in its back is engaged.  

Vector can also detect its environment because of its AI, it can map its surroundings, detect objects, avoid running into them and even knows when a table or surface ends so it doesn’t fall off. It also includes facial and voice recognition capabilities, can learn names and faces and differentiate between people.

Because of its cloud connection, AI and deep learning capabilities, Vector will learn and develop capabilities even after its release, such as delivering messages between people in the house, reading news, have smart home control capabilities and even work as a security camera, said Andrew Stein, Anki’s technical director of computer vision.

Vector when you ask a question

Putting Vector out into the market will allow Anki to see exactly what people want their home robots to be able to do, Stein told 

At this point Vector mostly seems like an advanced entertainment robot, similar to having a talking robotic pet following you around the house. With the thus far unsuccessful history of similar products, like Jibo and Kuri, (the former being cancelled and the later facing tough reviews) – Vector may have a tough road ahead. 

With Anki’s experience in the robotics industry, and its similar (though much less advanced) Cozmo toy robot named a best selling toy on Amazon in 2017, the company thinks it’s found the solution, with what it calls a bottom up approach; slowly improving robots and making people feel comfortable with the idea of having them around the house.

Other companies, said Stein, try and create robots like Honda’s Asimo that are fully capable of being in-home assistant robots, but this is the wrong approach. He argues that neither the technology nor the broad, mainstream acceptance of these products are ready for the market.

Anki has $200 million in funding from backers including JP Morgan and plans to create robots that are a little more human to make people feel comfortable, he said. The firm plans to slowly develop technology and release more robots incrementally, creating more advanced capabilities each time.

Anki wants to make people feel more comfortable with this idea of a robot following them around by giving Vector a personality, working with animators to storyboard endearing personality traits.

And it sort of worked. Vector is cute in the way it moves around and even more adorable in its interactions. For example, it runs on a battery and when that gets low, it will return to its docking station to ‘sleep’ but before settling in it will do a little ‘squirmy’ move, similar to a cat or dog trying to find a comfy place to sit.

Vector’s battery port

While meeting and interacting with Vector was fun, it wasn’t responsive 100 per cent of the time and couldn’t answer who the first Canadian prime minister was, (though since it was born in San Francisco, maybe we can give it a break on that one.)

The idea of Vector as a cute, in-home, pet robot is neat but it’s hard to say how successful the $330 product will be given the history of in-home robots thus far, time will tell if Vector’s personality can win over the market.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Meagan Simpson
Meagan Simpson
Meagan Simpson is a staff writer for IT World Canada. A graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program, she loves sports, travelling, reading and photography, and when not covering tech news she can be found cuddled up on the couch with her cat and a good book.

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