San Francisco AI startup Anki has a great reputation for making robot that cars you can race with your phone. And considering that all three founders got their start at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute, that's really no surprise — making little cars you race around a track should be a piece of cake for these guys. But their next trick — an adorable robot called Cozmo — is one of the coolest leaps in toy technology since baby dolls starting soiling their own diapers. When I meet Anki CEO Boris Sofman at a hotel in New York's Union Square, he's bursting with an infectious energy. The Anki Overdrive car system has always been a means to an end, he tells me, and he's not here to show me another car.
But before Sofman introduces me to Cozmo, he needs to explain Cozmo. And then it feels like he's talking out of his arse.
All images: Anki
"We wanted to bring an animated character into the real world," he says.
What does that even mean? This is not Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Space Jam, people.
"We wanted to make a character people could love."
Again. What. The. Hell.
Then he pulls a tiny robot out of his bag and sets it on the table in front of me. And wow, Cozmo is adorable. With his round little head and stubby little forklift arms, he's what would happen if Wall-E and Eve ever gained the ability to reproduce.
God damn adorable.
But he's just a little plastic toy. Until, that is, Sofman sets him in his power cradle, pairs him with his phone and brings little Cozmo to life.
Thanks to an OLED screen embedded in his face, Cozmo has expressive little blue eyes, designed by a former Pixar animator, that open sluggishly as he wakes up. Music plays from the phone, a pleasant soundtrack you'd expect to hear if watching an adorable little robot character in a movie get out of bed.
Then he rolls out of his dock and moves towards Sofman and me. We reach out to touch him and his eyes narrow, launching himself at my fingers, little forklift arms rising up to strike. I pull back with a laugh, but by that point I had Cozmo's full attention.
It should not have felt so ridiculous and wonderful to have a little toy pick me out of a group of people and roll towards me. The phone prompts me for my name, which Cozmo utters with a gremlin-like gurgle. Then we play games.
Mock this robot small children.
Cozmo has a small camera located just beneath his face that he uses to remain spatially aware. Using a combination of faces he sees, and little toy blocks that will accompany him at retail, he's able to know where he is in the room at all times, and he remembers where you are as well. Which means, yeah, you can hide from him. Or move his blocks around and irritate him.
When he's excited he'll prompt you to play a game. We play a variation on snap where we each have a block that changes colour. When both blocks turn the same colour, we have to hit ours first. The first one to five wins.
Cozmo kicks my arse.
And then the little screwball gloats.
And I have never felt more enchanted.
"It's like having an animated character in the real world," I say to Sofman.
Which, shit. Now I was the one talking out my arse.
Cozmo goes on sale in the US in October for $US179 ($244), but Anki is taking pre-orders now on its website. Unfortunately there's no word yet on an Australian release or pricing. Anki is also planning to release the SDK, which means owners will be able to make like a sci-fi god and alter Cozmo's artificial intelligence, if they really wanted to.
Personally, I'll be content to just hang out with this version of Cozmo for a while. He's kind of like my dog and cat had their consciousness merged together and uploaded into a robot, which is a lot cooler and less terrifying than it sounds.
LOOK AT THAT LITTLE FACE.