"Hey Vector, my name is Sophie". I'm chatting to an AI assistant but this time instead of glancing over the room to a small cylinder, I'm staring into the asymmetrical green eyes of an adorable bot.
Vector is the new robot from Anki, makers of Overdrive and Cozmo, but co-founder and head of AI Mark Palatucci says it's much more than just a toy. Cozmo, a bestselling tech toy on Amazon, was all about games, entertainment and teaching kids how to code. Vector is a $199 home companion aimed at early adopting adults and their families.
So what is this connected critter? Vector is a pretty small (Sphero sized), voice controlled, always-on robot that can move around your home ‚Äď well, around tabletops, desks and nightstands where it's designed to be used at least. What does it do? Right now, it's a sort of Alexa-lite with the ability to set timers, show you the weather, take an HD picture of you, retrieve trivia from the web (via partnerships with Google and Amazon) and play games like Blackjack.
"With that first gen of virtual assistant tech, it‚Äôs not mobile, it‚Äôs stuck in these tubes," says Palatucci. "The always on, ambient nature of this stuff has really created a new wave of interacting with tech that didn‚Äôt exist a few years ago. But it‚Äôs also easy to see that we‚Äôre barely scratching the surface - when you add mobility, when you add character, when you add personality, you can start to do a lot of really unique things that you couldn‚Äôt previously."
The sci-fi inspired design is very similar to Anki's previous device, Cozmo ‚Äď the colour IPS display here acts as Vector's eyes but it can also serve up gloomy rain animations or virtual cards. It's a cross between Wall-e and the tiny janitor robot in that same Pixar movie. And that's far from a coincidence.
"We have an animation team of twelve people that work on character, people from Pixar, people from DreamWorks, they‚Äôve created thousands and thousands of animations in these characters to really try to bring them to life," he says. "Now we‚Äôve created the first pipeline between Maya ‚Äď which is what they use in all these high end animation studios ‚Äď and physical robot controls. They have very, very precise control over all the motors, face, the sound, degrees of freedom. That‚Äôs how you get that really subtle behaviour."
We got to spend some time with Vector and though he didn't get on well with my Mancunian accent, we got to see the "Hey Vector" wake word in action alongside the weather, games, timer and web questions. Everything worked A-OK, though asking questions is quite a bit slower than dealing with Alexa and has an extra 'Question/Ready' step.
If you already have a smart speaker or similar, this is more limited on conversational smarts, though that doesn't take into account the camera, the sensors and even what you might think are minor additions like making eye contact.
In fact, the moving around and extra emotional layer was pretty damn impressive ‚Äď say 'take a picture of us' and Vector turns to find faces with his computer vision smarts and four microphone array. If he loses a game to you, you have to stroke his back (there's a capacitive touch sensor on top) to chill him out and he can give you a fist bump if you ask.
"With the weather, there was that full, emotive response," explains Palatucci. "We want to add that richness for all these types of answers. Things like sports ‚Äď you could set him to be a fan of a team, if the team win he gets excited, if they lose he gets depressed. We prototyped with the stock market where he was depressed because the stock market was down. As [we] build out that knowledge graph is trying to add emotional responses to the sentiment."
With an SDK due in December for backers and in 2019 for everyone else, the list of what Vector is capable of could expand dramatically. Anki is already working on home automation integrations and the ability to act as a roving smart security camera, and Palatucci says that there are over 15,000 developers for Cozmo so he's hoping to see lots of interest in this more capable platform.
If like Anki, you've been dreaming of that Rosie Jetson-style home companion, it might be just as much a $199 friendly robot that helps to gets us there as long term, billion dollar moonshots coming out of Silicon Valley. Devices like Vector bring grand AI and robotics schemes back down to home size. Hey, one of Palatucci's aims is that families might consider buying a Vector instead of a living, breathing pet.
Vector is available now on Kickstarter in the US (with a goal of $500k) and as pre-orders in the UK ‚Äď it is due to ship this October.