In days gone by, when children fell in love with a character on the big screen, they would clamour for the plush toy or vinyl doll. Now, robots are marching into the playroom to take over that role.
And not only for kids. Adults who have fallen for superheroes or Star Wars character are the biggest fans of the robot versions of these heroes and villains. That’s just as well, as the price tags don’t often match parents’ budgets for their children’s gifts.
Our top character robot of the year is a case in point:
First Order Stormtrooper Robot
The state of the art in toy robots does not come cheap. The Star Wars First Order Stormtrooper Robot from UBTech retails for R6499. But the price must be balanced with that phrase: “state of the art”.
This is what the Stormtrooper Robot does, according to local distributor Gammatek:
- First and Third Person Augmented Reality App Modes: “Protect the First Order against the Resistance in your own room, issuing direct verbal orders, and launch attacks via the app interface in first and third person views for immersive interactive app play.”
- Voice Commands: “Speak directly to your Stormtrooper to interact in new ways.”
- Sentry Patrolling: “Order your Stormtrooper to patrol the designated area to detect and respond to intruders.”
- Connect via secured WiFi on an encrypted platform: “Platform encrypted … and no data or personal information is saved to the robot or the companion app.”
The last feature addresses a privacy issue that is currently in the spotlight. Two years ago, it was found that Mattell’s interactive “Hello Barbie” doll, which listened to a child and responded via voice, could be hacked to turn it into a surveillance tool without the child or parents knowing.
This year, Germany banned a similar doll, called “My Friend Cayla”, which boasted concealed microphones and cameras. The Federal Network Agency, the German regulator, went as far as calling it a “de facto spying device”, saying the ban was intended “to protect the most vulnerable in our society”.
The Stormtrooper Robot was designed with this concern in mind, hence the startling decision not to connect it to the Internet, and to encrypt information on its app.
It is all the more surprising, then, that its features include facial recognition.
It can memorise up to three faces, and is geared towards members of a family storing their faces in the robot. This means it will later later automatically recognise the faces through facial biometrics, which will in turn activate interactions specific to each family member.
- Stormtrooper will be available across South Africa at Hamleys, hi, Incredible Connection, iStore, ShopandShip, takealot.com and Toys R Us. For more information on the robot, visit ubtrobot.starwarsrobots.com
Spider-Man, by Sphero
Like the Stormtrooper, the Spider-Man robot is also interactive, with voice recognition, along with a vast library of missions, jokes and banter.
However, its creator, Sphero, has taken a different approach to UBTech. Rather than lock down all outside access, it has built cutting edge security into the robot. It conducts a thorough security review of all products and apps, and uses third parties to test for weaknesses across apps, devices, and web services.
It also claims that it periodically reviews data it collects to make sure it is “only collecting what is necessary for your play experience”. While this very capability may set alarm bells ringing, Sphero is adamant it has strong policies for data storage, and data is encrypted both in transit and at rest.
With minds thus set at rest, the app for the robot is the entry point to numerous adventures, where every decision made by the player creates a new path forward, so that each game follows a unique journey that continually evolves.
Thanks to being Wi-Fi enabled, Spider-Man allows the player to download new missions, stories and other content. This, in turn, refreshes the banter that Spidey strikes up with its owner – including the friendly neighborhood hero’s signature cheeky wit.
Strictly speaking, Spider-Man is not a robot, as he doesn’t move, but he has as much artificial intelligence built in as most of his moving counterparts. Animated LCD eyes and motion detection make him both expressive and perceptive. He reacts to people passing, and can even guard a room: motion detection makes him an ally, giving him the semi-superpower of alerting his owner to intruders.
- Spider-Man from Sphero is available from the iStore for R2499. For more information, visit www.myistore.co.za/spider-man
R2-D2 App-Enabled Droid
Going back to Star Wars, here finally is the droid you’re looking for: the most famous astromech in this or any galaxy, R2-D2. He is a worthy successor to the coolest toy of 2016, the BB-8 remote controlled robot, still delighting kids and adults and scaring pets the world over.
R2-D2 is a little more refined, and can be controlled from an app on a smartphone or set to patrol an area independently. It can adapt from bipod to tripod stances, and can interact with other Star Wars droids from Sphero. One of its most intriguing features, holographic simulation, allows one to explore the Star Wars universe in a novel way.
The most unusual feature must be Watch With Me, which invites one to watch Star Wars movies with R2-D2 – but mostly to watch how he reacts to the movies. This feature is also available for BB-8 and the new BB-9E droids from Sphero.
Finally, R2-D2 wouldn’t be himself without his beeps, boops and flashing lights. These are all brought to robot life with front and rear LED lights and a speaker.
- R2-D2 from Sphero is available from the iStore for R2999. For more information, visit https://www.myistore.co.za/r2-d2-app-enabled-droid
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.