Mechanized toymaker Anki will dip a toe into the home robotics market on October 12 with the debut of Vector–a diminutive $250 bulldozer-looking character packing the processing power and algorithms to act as a smart robo-pet. When I first saw a Vector prototype back in June, he was entertaining–able to navigate around a tabletop (and not fall off the edge), play simple games, and make excited facial expressions and twittering sounds when he recognized me approaching. But he wasn’t very useful. (Yes, Anki has dubbed Vector a “he.”)
Back then, Vector could understand questions and provide simple answers, such as weather forecasts or basic Wikipedia-style info. Though that reminded me of Amazon’s Alexa, it was nowhere near as good. Kickstarter backers felt the same way, and begged Anki to put a real digital assistant onboard.
Today the company announced that it will add support for Alexa by the end of the year. With that, Vector goes from a cute pet to a home helper–like a working dog in the barnyard instead of a lazy cat on the couch. Vector won’t be the first Alexa-enabled robot; the $800 Ubtech Lynx also has Alexa onboard.
Anki is pretty vague about what Alexa integration will do, but it could in theory include controlling a raft of smart home devices. (Fortunately, this includes home audio devices, because playing music from Vector’s tinny little speaker would be grating.)
Anki has also announced other coming upgrades, including delivering messages, recognizing music, and acting as a home-monitoring device. (He has a microphone array to recognize where sound comes from and a camera with vision algorithms to detect people and soon, flesh-and-blood pets.)
Despite outsourcing some of Vector’s brains to Alexa, Anki closely guards the bot’s personality. It’s set by Hollywood animators and software that simulates emotions–happy, sad, bored–in response to his interactions with people and the environment. Vector also has his own low-fi robotic boy voice, which he may lose in Alexa mode. While Alexa defaults to a simulated female voice, Amazon offers developers 27 voices, including (for U.S. English) such options as Justin, Matthew, Ivy, and Kendra. I asked Anki how it plans to handle voice and gender, but the company says it hasn’t worked that out yet.