Until we enter the age of companion droids, robots for the mass market will continue to be categorized as either appliances or toys. Which makes Toy Fair New York a great place to check out the new consumer robots coming out every year. Happily, many of these robots come in the form of kits or can be hacked, which makes them excellent maker toys. Here’s a sampling of what I saw there this month:
Artec products are already well-represented in Maker Shed, where their cardboard-box-bodied Obstacle Avoiding Robot and other kits fill a much-needed niche for the non-techy beginner. At Toy Fair I got a chance to see their slightly more advanced robot-building kits in action, and from what I can tell they rival Lego Mindstorms in versatility at a fraction of the price.
Artec has its own system of colorful interlocking blocks. The blocks are cube-shaped, giving them a Minecraft vibe, but they can be used just like Lego pieces to build any kind of design imaginable. Artec’s robotics kits combine their blocks with programmable modules. Smaller kits like Robo Link A and Robo Link B can be combined to make more interesting models like the transforming robot seen here.
Even cooler is the fact that Artec’s robot kit can be controlled using three different programming environments, at increasing levels of difficulty. The first is a simple proprietary graphical interface using drag-and-drop icons — no reading necessary. The next level is Artec’s own version of Scratch, with command blocks that can be stacked to create loops and give a readout of the robot’s sensor values. Finally the robots can also be programmed using the Arduino IDE, making them a good way to transition to DIY robot design. The kits retail for $24.99 and $39.99 respectively, making them incredibly affordable.
Meanwhile, VEX Robotics, which makes competition-level robot kits for schools and groups, continues to wring new variations on its line of simple BEAM-inspired Hexbugs and the BristleBot-like Nanos. Their Nano cat toys were almost a little too mouse-like, but I loved the aquarium full of new Aquabots, which now include a sea horse and jellyfish. In 2014, they also introduced Hexbug VEX kits . These are much larger than the Hexbugs you can buy — and kind of creepy when they’re running around. Outside the robot realm, VEX was also showing some cool-looking, non-motorized engineering kits that let kids build a working zoetrope, Da Vinci screw-type helicopter, and more.
Remember Robosapien from WowWee? It was one of the first “real” robot toys, that responded to its own voice commands. BEAM robotics guru Mark Tilden was behind the first Robosapien models, but in recent years the line has been much less visible at Toy Fair. This year, WowWee’s chief technology officer, Davin Sufer, was on hand demonstrating MiPosaur, their new rolling dino bot.
With the upcoming release of a new Jurassic Park movie, dinos were everywhere this year at Toy Fair. But if you still get the chills thinking about that scene in the first Jurassic Park, where the kids had to hide in the kitchen from the ravenous velociraptors, you’ll understand why I was hooked the minute I saw the trio pounce on the companion track ball, which you can adjust to set off a feeding frenzy. The track ball can also set the MiPosaurs to soccer mode or make them follow you around like they’re on an invisible leash. Like last year’s MiP, the robot/Segway hybrid, they also respond to gestures, touch, and sound, and can play games using a free app.
And as mentioned, all WowWee robots are hackable, with a built-in port where you can plug in your Arduino and go to town. (It may take some effort to get inside to the port, however.) You can see how it’s done by watching SparkFun’s tutorial for hacking the MiP.