Hands-on with Vector, Anki's new emotive home assistant robot
Sci-fi has long promised that robots would be living in our houses someday, helping us out and basically becoming a member of the family. But that hasn't really happened yet – after all, it's hard to really get attached to your Roomba or Alexa. Now robotics company Anki is unveiling Vector, an emotive little fella who's basically a cross between a smart home assistant and a pet. New Atlas got a hands-on demo, and found Vector to be a versatile home robot that's a real charmer and might actually chip in around the house.
Vector basically looks like a cross between the two main characters in the movie WALL-E. He has the eponymous robots' small, squat form factor, getting around on a set of wheels with tank-like treads and sporting an "arm" in the front like a bulldozer. On his little head, which can tilt up and down to look at you, sits an expressive face that looks a lot like that of WALL-E's buddy EVE.
That face goes a long way towards endearing you to Vector. It's an IPS screen that displays two big, cartoon-like eyes, which will widen, frown, squint, or mope, depending on the little guy's mood and actions. Comparing him to WALL-E is apt too – Anki has an army of animators to bring the robots to life as characters, rather than just toys or appliances.
At a glance, Vector looks a lot like Anki's previous robot, Cozmo, but the similarities are only skin-deep. Where Cozmo is a toy for kids, Vector is designed for an older market that wants more practical functionality out of their robot friends – without skimping on the personality or fun side of things, of course.
To manage that, Vector has had quite a boost in the brains department. He's powered by the kind of Qualcomm Snapdragon processor that you'd find in a smartphone, and his personality is the result of AI algorithms and deep learning systems that let him recognize and react to his surroundings.
He senses those surroundings by way of an HD wide-angle camera, four microphones, a laser scanner to navigate obstacles, infrared "cliff" sensors on his underside that keep Vector from venturing off the edges of tables, and a capacitive touch sensor on his back. That's a lot of tech in a little body, and Vector puts it to good use.
Alexa on wheels
At his core, Vector is essentially one of those assistant speakers on wheels, plucking information from the cloud over Wi-Fi. After getting his attention by calling "Hey Vector," you can ask him for a weather forecast or what the capital of Switzerland is, get him to set a timer or snap a photo.
But rather than getting that info from a lifeless speaker sitting in the corner, it's coming from a free-wheeling robot that can recognize you with the help of the camera, and will even greet excitedly when you get home. Vector will turn to look you in the eyes when you speak to him, and not only speak things like the weather out loud, the temperature or a little animation of rain clouds will flash up on his face.
Given he can recognize faces, different users can set their own preferences for Vector, who will dutifully remember them each time. So he might greet one person with the stock report or sports scores, and remind another that they have a dentist appointment this afternoon.
Anki is also careful to note that privacy is a priority. All user data, including the microphone and camera feeds, are processed locally in the robot itself, and when Vector consults the cloud for answers he does so securely.
But it's not all business. Vector will give you a fist-bump on command (or just whenever he feels like it), and can play Blackjack or other games using the included Cube accessory. Between dancing when he hears music and snoring while he snoozes in his charging dock, Vector just oozes personality.
Given how common assistant devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo are becoming, it only makes sense to finally bestow that functionality to a robot with some flair. And, going the other way, it's important to give "toy" robots something useful to do – in our experience with things like Sphero's Star Wars droids, the coolness factor wears off pretty quickly if all you can do is drive them around on the floor.
In that regard, Vector isn't a toy that you get out, play with for a while, then put away. It's more like Amazon Echo and its ilk, where the device is always on, sitting on the bench and waiting to assist. The user interface isn't filtered through an app either – most of the input is through voice commands, the camera or physical touch. There is an app of course, but Anki says that's mostly for initial setup and deeper settings, and isn't the primary interface.
Vector is due to be released on October 13 for US$249.99, and Anki is currently taking preorders through Kickstarter where early birds can claim one for $199. We'll have a full review closer to the release date, and while we've been impressed with what we've seen so far, we're really interested to see just how well Vector slots into our daily routine.
Check him out in action in the video below.
Product page: Vector