Why little robots may be the next big thing in smart home tech

Anki is a company that's well versed in robotics. Its diminutive robot Cozmo was a big hit when it was first released a few years back, topping Amazon's best toys list in the UK and the US, with 1.5 million units sold, and its Overdrive range brought some much-needed intelligence to the world of racing car sets. 

So far, though, its products put it firmly in the toy category but it hopes to change that with its latest robot, Vector - a smart robot built specifically for the home and pitched more for adults.

"Internally, we call toys the ‘t’ word," says Anki co-founder Mark Palatucci. "Cozmo was a very sophisticated robot but the primary use was as a toy, for entertainment, to sell to kids."

With Vector, the focus is now not just on entertainment but on usefulness.

"The strategy at the beginning has always been a bottoms up approach to robotics," says Palatucci. 

"You look at Google or Honda. Google is an 800 billion dollar company, so it is very easy for them to spend 10 years on the autonomous car as a moonshot. As a new company, we don’t have that luxury. So we produce these products and reinvent a category, then grow our capabilities as a team to take on harder challenges in our robotics."

Robot helpers

That harder challenge is Vector. While, at first glance, it looks like a bigger variant of Cozmo, a lot has changed. The robot has been built to be autonomous. Where Cozmo relied on a companion app, Vector has been given processor power, some 50x bigger than its predecessor. 

Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon, Quad Core 1.2GHz chip that powers the device, meaning that once it's set up, you never need to look at the app again. This power means it can do an array of things: recognise faces, play games, set timers, answer questions and react in thousands of different ways to its environment.

"We made Cosmo more effective by pushing a lot of the computational information to the phone - the app was running the robot’s brain and the AI. 

"What people really wanted was a robot from the movies, they wanted a robot that was always on. They didn’t want to pull out their phone in order to just play, this just created a lot of friction."

Vector operates completely autonomously and connects to the cloud which gives it a vast database of knowledge to answer questions. 

In short: it now does things that a virtual assistant does but Palatucci believes Vector has two big USPs that the current crop of Alexa and Google Assistant infused speakers doesn't have - mobility and personality.

"We aren’t trying to compete with Alexa and Google Home, Palatucci notes. "We are trying to create robots where the primary purpose is companionship, but at the same time they can do things that are useful."

Robots in the home

While it may not have this functionality from the off, this usefulness comes in the form of the smart home. Where you may have Alexa around currently to turn the lights on, play the music you want, Anki hopes that Vector can offer something different in what is becoming a crowded space. 

An Amazon Echo smart speaker, sat next to Google Home. Neither has much personality when not speaking.

An Amazon Echo smart speaker, sat next to Google Home. Neither has much personality when not speaking.

"We are barely scratching the surface with virtual assistant technology. There’s very little personality or emotion - there is no anthropomorphism of the devices, they are just stuck in these cylindrical tubes that don’t move," explains Palatucci. 

"We are starting to see fundamental examples of things you can’t do unless you have a mobile platform.

"After launch, not at launch, we are looking to do integration with the smart home, things like the ability to turn your lights on and off. 

"We have also been looking at the ability of using Vector as a security camera. Its ability to look up and look down, the people and face detection. You can put it on patrol and it can send you a notification."

On your guard

Palatucci sees Vector as your home's guard dog - the German Shepherd that you have a companionship with but also feel good that they are watching the house when you are away. 

It's an interesting comparison and shifts Vector away from the entertainment space, but it will still be a hard task for Anki to get people to use Vector beyond it being seen as a toy. Palatucci is passionate, though, that this will be the case and also about the role robots can play alongside humans to help, not hinder. 

"We asked the question: how can we create a different future? Not one where robots take people’s jobs, but a friendly future where robots are additive. 

"One where robots are helping out and are a good companion where they are doing something fun and useful. That has what we have been driving towards with this company - all these products taken together have put us on that path."

Vector can be pre-ordered at anki.com from 8 August for 30 days.

Marc Chacksfield

Marc Chacksfield is the Editor In Chief, Shortlist.com at DC Thomson. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online - editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom's Guide UK. At Shortlist you'll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.