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How a $20k DARPA Robot Became a Kids’ Toy

Bossa Nova designs robots, guided by research into how kids play.

Prime 8

Skaff had always been interested in making toy robots. “It’s the best way to introduce robotics to the public,” he says. “And toys allow you unlimited creativity.” RHex, however, wasn’t a toy. It was a $20,000 robot funded by the DARPA, the Defense Department’s mad-science program. Retrofitting the tech and making it cheaper took four years. And this fall, RHex will finally be reincarnated in two toys, available this fall, dubbed Prime-8 ($99.99) and Penbo ($79.99).

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So what made the transformation possible? Although Skaff and the co-founders of Bossa Nova Robotics had the basic locomotion principal, the robot had to do more. But what? “We talked to product experts and consulted books about how kids play,” Skaff explains. A toy for boys had to involve three core “play patterns”: Power, Mastery, and Competition. So they designed the Prime-8 to move fast and shoot rockets; to be controlled by an X-Box–like controller complicated enough that it would require kids to become experts; and they designed it with IR sensors, so that robots could play laser tag with each other and race. Triggered by loud noises, it can become angry or happy, stomping around or break-dancing. It can be programmed as a guard, to shoot intruders.

Penbo with Baby

Skaff says that Bossa Nova’s biggest goal isn’t mere fun. “A big part of robots is that they can interest kids in science and technology,” he says. “In the manuals, we use technical terms and explanations. So that maybe technology becomes cool, and maybe you’ll pursue science when you grow up.”

[You can watch video of Prime-8 and Penbo in action over at Pocket Lint and at Gizmodo]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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