This Little Robot Broke My Heart

Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo

I know I’m not going to have a robot zipping around my home, working through random chores, anytime soon. But is a simple autonomous companion so much to ask for? Anki’s new Vector bot wants to be your robotic sidekick, but as it looks up at me with confused eyes as I repeatedly try to ask it about the weather, I once again come to the heartbreaking conclusion that the reality of robotics still hasn’t caught up to what science fiction has promised us.

Vector Home Robot

WHAT IS IT?

A tiny robot designed to be a useful companion around the home.

PRICE

$US250 ($350)

LIKE

It's simple animated eyes are quite charming and expressive.

DISLIKE

Not really sure why I need one around.

One day, someone will come up with a good reason to have a robot rolling around your home that’s not just vacuuming up crumbs. But unfortunately, despite being adorable, charming, and packed full of potential, Anki’s new Vector robot hasn’t found a way to justify its existence just yet.

Cozmo, Anki’s first bot, aspired to be nothing more than a fun desk toy, and more or less succeeded. But Anki’s follow-up, a more-capable robot called Vector, has grander ambitions. Anki wants Vector to become an essential part of your household—and more. It has the potential to be a palm-sized version of R2D2; a robotic sidekick who follows you around all day making life a little easier.

I love the idea, I love Anki’s attempt to gently push us closer to home robots being ubiquitous, and, it’s impossible to not fall in love with Vector’s personality. But sadly, this little robot, at least in its current form, left my heart broken and wanting more.

If you’ve played with Anki’s Cozmo, or remember our review, Vector will seem very similar. It’s got the same pair of tracks it uses to roll over most surfaces in your home, the same camera-equipped nodding head, the same pair of animated glowing eyes that can express a surprisingly diverse range of emotions, and the same pair of arms that work more like the business end of a forklift.

You’d be surprised how expressive a pair of pupil-less coloured eyes can be. (Their colour can be changed using the Vector Robot mobile app.) (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)
Vector can autonomously find its way back to its charging dock, which it will be doing often, since battery life is limited to about 15 minutes of exploration and interaction. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

On the outside, it doesn’t look like Anki did much between Cozmo and Vector, but like every fairy tale will tell you, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. In addition to a Snapdragon processor, Vector uses a 120-degree HD camera, a quartet of microphones, an infrared laser scanner, and a six-axis inertial measurement unit to experience and navigate the world.

But the biggest upgrade over Cozmo is the addition of wifi, freeing Vector from being tethered to your smartphone and making it seem more autonomous and sentient—even if the tiny robot is still completely reliant on a mobile app when it comes to setup and connecting to your home’s wireless network.

You can alternately tap a button on Vector’s back to grab its attention and make a voice command. And the gold areas are touch-sensitive strips allowing you to pet the little robot for some positive reinforcement. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

An always-on internet connection not only gives Vector access to a wealth of information, it also allows the little robot to listen to your voice commands with a simple “Hey Vector!” prompt. You can almost think of it as a mobile version of the Google Home Mini or the Amazon Echo Dot, except that it’s far less reliable at detecting and interpreting your commands. And if you want the robot to answer questions that stray from a few built-in functions like reporting the weather or starting timers, you need to follow “Hey Vector!” with an additional “I have a question” prompt before asking.

Anki recently revealed that support for Amazon’s Alexa was en route for Vector later this year, and that will hopefully improve the robot’s ability to quickly respond to your inquiries, and its overall capabilities. But in its current form, using voice commands to interact with Vector can be as frustrating as it is limited.

You can play a hand of Blackjack with Vector, but it’s not as fun without the betting. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

So what else can Vector do? You can request a fist bump, and the robot will raise its little arms until it feels the bump from your hand. It’s cute, for about two minutes, then you’ll probably never do it again. You can play a hand of Blackjack with Vector, which is a little more impressive as the bot plays dealer while its glowing eyes are replaced with a simple set of cards. Or you can put on some bass-heavy tunes and watch Vector dance along with the music. These all mostly feel like party tricks, however, and not features you’ll be using often.

Vector’s sensors do a decent job at preventing it from rolling off a desk or table. But there are still times when the robot can slip off and take a nasty tumble. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

You can also let Vector go off and explore its surroundings, which it’s now able to do more skillfully, avoiding obstacles and even moving objects out of its way as it rolls along. It does this mostly autonomously, but on a raised desk or table you’ll want to keep an eye on your $450 companion to ensure it doesn’t take a tumble. Its edge sensors do a pretty good job at keeping it safe, but I’ve run out of fingers counting the times Vector got too close to the edge of a table for comfort, before quickly backing away from a potential fall at the last second. But unfortunately, the robot does have the tendency to fall off tables sideways when its treads slip off an edge its sensors can’t see.

Vector can’t do much with its cube accessory yet but push it out of the way. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

Like Cozmo, Vector also comes with a small light-up cube the robot can potentially lift, push around, and interact with. Cozmo used its cubes to play a small collection of games, but for the life of me, I can’t really figure out why Vector comes with one. I suspect someone, at some point, will figure out a clever use for the encoded cube when the API for Vector is made available to tinkerers. But that essentially sums up my experience with Vector right now.

Despite its diminutive size, Vector feels alive and responsive. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

Anki has done a fantastic job at breathing life into what could have been another boring robot toy. Vector’s movements, sounds, and expressions genuinely draw you in and make you want to interact with the little bot. The first time it studies your face and says your name will never not be endearing, and I often found myself feeling guilty whenever I had to tell the robot to be quiet or go to sleep while I was trying to work.

But I just can’t see myself spending $449.99 on a tiny robot that can recognise me, say my name, and then offer up a fist bump before slipping off the edge of a table. Asking it random questions is a tedious process that’s accomplished faster through Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant—or even just a simple Google search. Anki has promised that Vector will eventually be as useful, potentially even more than the smart home devices you now use to control your lights, play your music, and even monitor your appliances. But that’s been the promise of home robots for years now, and they keep breaking my heart.

README

  • Vector’s $449.95 price tag is more expensive than Cozmo’s, but in its current form, it feels like it offers fewer reasons to actually use it.

  • You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the emotions a simple pair of glowing eyes can express, even if they eventually break your heart.

  • The novelty of fist bumps, dancing, and reporting the weather with cute animations wears off quickly.

  • Getting Vector to listen and understand your voice requests can be frustrating, particularly when Alexa and Google Home already do it so well.

  • Anki promises a future API will help expand Vector’s capabilities.

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