Pixar-inspired robot toy with big personality and big screen hopes

San Francisco-based robotics start-up Anki has introduced smartphone-controlled microbot Cozmo, which was inspired by Pixar characters.
San Francisco-based robotics start-up Anki has introduced smartphone-controlled microbot Cozmo, which was inspired by Pixar characters. PHOTO: ANKI/ FACEBOOK

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A new palm-sized robot with a cheeky personality is vying to become a favourite toy and a possible future entertainment franchise.

Cozmo, a palm-sized microbot armed with sensors, motors and visual capabilities, and controlled using a smartphone, is the latest product from San Francisco-based robotics start-up Anki, the makers of Overdrive robotic race car toy sets.

Cozmo is not the first smartphone-controlled robotic toy. Similar products are available that can teach kids to code or just play games and perform tricks such as Sphero's popular smartphone-controlled Star Wars BB-8 droid.

But most robot toys are not equipped with the capability to learn over time, Anki chief executive Boris Sofman said.

"There's certainly a lot of products out there that want to be a pet or a toy robot or robot companion, but all of them really lack the ability to truly see and understand their environment," he said.

Cozmo's personality is driven by artificial intelligence as it learns to recognise familiar faces and play games such as Quick Tap, in which it challenges a player to match colours.

When it loses a game, it throws its building blocks in a tantrum, and when it wins, it likes to show off.

Sofman said: "He wants to be this Jedi master but he's not quite there yet so he has to uncover his skills ... and you're there to help him."

If it looks like a Pixar character, that is because Cozmo, out in October and priced at US$179 (S$240), was inspired by the playful, heartwarming bots seen in animated films such as Wall-E, and co-designed by a former Pixar animator.

Sofman said: "As we were looking at these movies from Pixar, from DreamWorks, at these incredible characters, we started asking what would it take to make a character like that actually come to life in the real world."

Anki envisions a future on the big screen for Cozmo, including new robot friends and a possible weekly episodic series. "We're looking at the franchise as a studio for interactive characters and stories," Sofman said.

Amid wider public concerns of how apps can collect data from users to pass onto other parties, Sofman said Cozmo pairs solely with individual users' smartphones and no information leaves the device. "There's no personal or identifiable information that's actually being in any way transmitted," Sofman said.