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Bridging The Gap
These toys make the perfect robot sidekick
  Tuesday 18 October, 2016
These toys make the perfect robot sidekick

If you grew up watching The Jetsons, Star Wars, or even WALL-E, at some point, you likely dreamed of having a robot sidekick. How great would it be to have a Rosie of your own, making dinner, folding laundry and basically making your every household chore her cheerful command?

No such luck for us grown-ups (yet), but the latest robotic toys are more advanced than ever, and the cool factor extends far beyond mere child’s play. Here are the best I’ve reviewed to date.

Anki Cozmo

I was fairly underwhelmed when I first took this palm-sized dump-truck looking device out of the box. Then, I turned it on and the little dozer absolutely bowled me over.

Cozmo ($179.99) is a tiny robot with a giant personality. It recognizes faces, plays games, and comes packed with a mind-blowing amount of engineering—from AI to computer vision and sound design—so that it reacts to you and expresses a surprising range of emotion.

Right out of the box, Cozmo spotted my face, scanned it up and down, then prompted me to “introduce myself” by typing my name into the Cozmo app on my iPhone. As soon as I did, it lifted its little head, looked me in the eye and said, “Jenn.” Cozmo now knows everyone in our family and says our names differently depending on how it “feels.”

Cozmo’s digital brain thinks, reasons, plans, and is always eager to learn and explore. It moves about on a pair of treads, like a tank, and its little lifter arms are specially suited for picking up special “Power Cube” puzzle blocks. Cosmo comes ready to play a long list of games. The toy even remembers which games are your favorite and throws super cute little mini-tantrums when it loses. Ages 8+

This little robot dog stole the show for me at CES 2016 and it’s stealing the spotlight again as a top trending toy for the holidays. The Canine Home Intelligent Pet, also known as CHiP ($199.99), is a mechanical mutt that plays fetch, scampers around the house, and responds to voice and movement commands. You can even program it to wait at the door when the kids get home from school.

Like Cozmo, CHiP has an adaptive personality, so its character changes and grows the more you play. Pet its head and it sits downs. Say, “Hey CHiP,” and use a variety of voice commands to get it to dance, fetch, or even go into some pretty wild yoga poses.

The best part about this particular robot toy is just how much better it gets over time. I was an early reviewer—I’ve had mine since July—and both app and firmware updates have made it perform dramatically better and better. Just like a real dog, you have to train it a bit. Using the company’s how-to online videos versus the included quick start guide are a tremendous help, especially with the overall app interaction and voice recognition. The best part? Your kids can definitely keep teaching this little dog new tricks! Ages 8+

Meccanoid personal robots take things to the next level by letting you and your kids actually build the interactive mechanical companions yourselves. Meccanoids come in two flavors, with a 2-foot-tall bot ($129.99) made up of over 600 parts, and an absolutely huge 4-foot-tall creation ($299.99) with more than 1,200 parts. Think of it as an Ikea project with brains.

Both Meccanoids feature joint motors that create realistic movements, motorized feet, and a huge library of voice recognition commands and phrases. These bots can say more than 1,000 different things, and they’re packed with bits of trivia and even some quirky jokes that give them a lot of personality. But the really cool stuff happens when you plug your smartphone into the bot’s body; it uses the built-in camera to track and mimic your every move, like a mechanical Mini Me!

Don’t expect it react with human-like speed though, it’s still an early-stage robot that doesn’t quite work the same way it looks like it should in the slick commercials. As with the others, it gets smarter the more you play with it. This is the perfect robot for a youngster who’s ready to dive-in modern Frankenstein-style, and make this creation their very own. Ages 10+

Spin Master Hatchimals

Most kids already love cute furry animals. Add-in some great sound effects and a toy that grows depending on how much you interact with it, and Hatchimals adorable robotic beasts are about to warm your heart.

Hatchimals ($59.99) start out in an egg and you have to play with it via touch-technology in its shell to make it hatch. Tap it, it taps back, lights up and makes sounds, and an included color chart tells you how to respond. You have to make sure it doesn’t get cold, or scared. It’s a lot like a Tamagotchi, but a lot more fun. Once the egg cracks, kids can peel away the remaining shell exterior to reveal the unique critter hidden inside — mine looked like a little green dinosaur-bird.

Once they hatch, you have to take care of the little critter. They start out as needy infants, who need to be fed, comforted, cuddled, and coached along. The Hatchimals lights up with different colors to tell you how it’s feeling and what it wants to do, and once it gets old enough, there’s a whole bunch of games to play with it, like simple puzzles and even a voice mimic mode where it repeats everything it hears. Ages 5+

Ozobots (starting at $59) are real working robots that are small in size, but big on brains. They come in two versions — the Ozobot Bit and the more advanced Ozobot Evo.

Packed inside the tiny dome of the OzoBot Bit ($59.99) is a whole bunch of advanced electronics, including a color sensor, rechargeable battery, and motor-driven wheels, but it’s what your kids can do with the bot that is most impressive. They can program robot’s movements with simple markers, literally drawing out the paths and behavior on regular paper. Then, once they’ve nailed the basics, they can use the connected Ozobot app to try out a bunch of different games and special achievements.

The even newer Ozobot Evo ($99.99) takes things to the next level, adding proximity sensors, LED lights, and sounds. Where the Bit is more of a funky robotic toy that follows your drawings, the Evo interacts with objects and other Ozobots, and it’s much more of a “real” robot. Using the companion app, kids can program them to behave however they see fit, using simple commands. The bots can be made to race other bots, navigate obstacles, traverse mazes, and more! Ages 6+

I already loved the hilarious little Sphero robots when they first arrived on the toy scene, but this special edition Star Wars Sphero ($199.99) is just too cool not to mention here. It comes with a “Force Band” wrist sensor that adds a whole new dimension to what the little rolling robot is capable of.

Normally, you have to control the Sphero directly with your smartphone, kind of like a remote-control car, but in this case it’s a rugged little robotic ball. With the Force Band, this special edition Sphero — which is appropriately battle-worn to look just like the lovable BB-8 robot from The Force Awakens — actually responds to your movements. It’ll tag along wherever you go, following your path and responding to special gesture commands. Along with a smartphone, the little BB-8 clone will help you find bits of Star Wars lore hidden throughout the real world, too, which is just plain awesome. Ages 8+

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