I first met Pepper the life-sized robot waiter at a conference in Hungary last year, and was smitten. As soon as he/she/it greeted me with the words, “Hello, human”, I was captivated. However, I knew it would be many years before I would meet my new friend in a local restaurant.
But what about Pepper’s smaller relatives? What about humanoid robots designed for education, entertainment and service in the home, office and school? Back then, they seemed just as distant. But suddenly, they walk among us.
It was almost exactly a century ago, in 1920, that the term was first coined by Czech writer Karl Capek in his science fiction play, R.U.R. – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Since then, fiction has mostly treated these constructions as a threat to humanity. Now, the tide has finally turned.
Today, one can buy robots off the shelf, or online. It seems that only budget dictates the limitations of what the gadgets can do, say or sing. Here are some of the models I’ve recently tested, previewed, or encountered:
If there’s such a thing as an entry–level for robots, this is the starter model, but you’d have to go online to bring it under your control. It costs a mere $42 from Gearbest, although shipping adds $14, but for a total that is still under R1000.
For that, you get an “Intelligent combat robot with multi-control modes”. These modes include sending instructions via a handheld remote control device, touching its head, shaking its body and – most startling of all – gesture control. While that is expected in higher-end robots, it is rare to find a gesture sensor in a budget robot.
The clue that this is about fun rather than education lies in the word “combat”, but Cady Will accepts rudimentary programming. One can set sequences of movements, sounds, and actions, ranging from walking and sliding to dancing and singing. This means that, even while used exclusively as a toy, it exposes one to the principles of basic programming.
This doesn’t mean one needs a thinking cap for engaging with Cady Will, though. The remote control is clearly labelled, with instructions like Right hand Up, Turn Left, Speed Up, Dance, and Music.
You would quickly get tired of hearing it perform Gangnam Style but, in reality, it is more of a demo of the moves the robot can make. It comes with a set of missiles that can be launched from one hand, while the other sports a “laser cannon” that is probably going to scare a good few pets.
Cady Will probably personifies the phrase, “bang for your buck”. Buy it here:
Alpha 1 Pro
At the opposte end of the scale, a robot that is both taller and sleeker than Cady Will, Alpha 1 Pro, will set you back R8 499, or the price of a mid-range smartphone. For that, however, you get a delightful educational and entertainment tool. Controlled via an app – Android or iOS – it features numerous built-in modes, moods and content.
Yes, the obligatory Gangnam Style puts it through its dance moves, but then it features a collection of songs, an action-version of the story of Troy, and bedtime stories. If those aren’t enough, music can be played through the Alpha 1 via Bluetooth. Demonstrations of exercises, yoga moves and martial arts turn the robot into a coach and gym partner.
The key to a robot’s movements is its servo motors, and Alpha 1 packs in 16 high precision servos, and can rotate 180 degrees,
As with Cady Will, basic programming comes in the form of recording actions in sequence. However, true programming is also introduced, using a visual programming language called Blockly. One chooses a code module in the app and adjusts the parameters to program the robot to dance, demonstrate specific moves or go off on a secret mission.
Manufactured by UBTech, it is dsitributed in South Africa by branded technology specialist Gammatek. For more information on Alpha 1 Pro, visit: http://gammatek.co.za/product/ubtech-alpha-1-smart-toys/
At the distant high end of the scale, a corporate answer to Pepper has arrived in the form of Cruzr. It is described by UBTech as “a cloud-based intelligent humanoid robot” designed for both industrial applications and domestic environments. Taller than the average human, its key features include an 11.6” touch screen, flexible arms, facial recognition, video recording, navigational mapping, video conferencing, and surveillance capabilities.
That makes it ideal for anything from security to remote employee interaction and data collection. Combined with customisable artificial intelligence business applications, including big data analysis and question and answer libraries, it also becomes a tool for collaboration, sales and customer support.
A two-channel stereo speaker and a camera with depth perception rounds out the multimedia features. A sensor array in the head, along with one one Lidar sensor, six sonar sensors and 12 infrared sensors, make it not only good at aviding obstacles, but position the Cruzr as the state of the interactive robot art.
It has between five and eight hours active battery life and, best of all, when it runs low, it automatically returns to its self-charging dock.
Local distributors Gammatek doesn’t have pricing for the Cruzr, as it is individually customised and priced for corporate clients.
- 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.