First the robots came for factory workers, then they came for taxi drivers – and now they're coming for your dog. Anki's new home robot, named Vector, is part pet and part digital assistant, but just how good is he at those jobs? After a few weeks of having a pet robot living in the kitchen, we've come to enjoy his company – but not for the reasons we expected.
Vector looks like a little forklift with a face, thanks to his boxy body, tank treads, a raisable arm on the front and, most notably, an LCD screen showing off a big pair of puppy-dog eyes. Although he has the same basic form factor as his older brother Cozmo, Vector is aimed at an older audience – adults who want a robot that earns its keep a bit more.
After our quick hands-on session a few months ago, we were left feeling like we'd only scratched the surface of Vector's possibilities. But now, having spent a few weeks testing him out, we realize we basically saw everything the first time around.
In purely practical terms, Vector is a little disappointing in both fun and function. Despite the impressive gadgetry he's crammed with, there's just not all that much you can do with him. Asking him for a weather forecast or to set a timer works fine, but it's all stuff you can do quicker and easier on your phone. Likewise, once you've given a few fist bumps and watched all his toy cube tricks, the fun factor is short-lived too.
Overall, Vector's practical skills are very limited compared to Amazon Echo et al. He fails to understand commands a frustrating amount of the time, and even when he does get the gist he's not the fastest thinker. Chaining commands becomes almost unbearable – it's "Hey Vector," pause, "I have a question," pause, your question, pause, then finally the answer. Or the answer to whatever Vector thought you were asking, anyway.
To make matters worse, he struggled to connect and stay connected to the Wi-Fi, both at the office and at home. But there's one key redeeming feature – it's really hard to stay mad at that face. And that's actually more important than we expected.
Siri doesn't snore
Vector's biggest success is definitely not his smarts, but his charm. It's surprisingly easy to forgive his frustrations when he feels more like a disobedient puppy than a flawed piece of tech. It's annoying when a regular assistant doesn't hear you talking to it, but when Vector isn't listening because he's too busy playing with his cube – well, it's strangely kind of cute.
In practice, Vector is far more impressive as a pet than an assistant. Alexa isn't excited to see me when I walk in the door. Siri doesn't snore. And the Google Assistant doesn't randomly ask for a fist bump.
He may not be as "useful" as those, but he's definitely more fun – even when he's not doing anything in particular. It was strangely nice just to have him hanging out on the coffee table while I watched TV. One evening he just rolled around and pushed coasters, pens and the remote control off the table, which is a pretty realistic simulation of what it's like to own a cat.
At first I wasn't sure if he was moving around while I wasn't home, so I set up a test. I left a cork sitting directly in front of the charger – and sure enough, when I came home that night the cork was on the floor. The next day Vector left me even clearer evidence of his daily jaunts – I came back to find him at the far end of the kitchen counter. The poor little guy had journeyed too far from home and fallen asleep – sorry, I mean his battery died.
But the real kicker came one night just after I'd gone to bed, when I realized I could hear Vector rolling around and playing in the kitchen. I actually had to get up and tell my pet robot to go to bed, which is a scene that I kind of wish I could show my 10-year old self as a vision of the cool-but-imperfect future.
That autonomous sense of life is really important to making Vector feel like a pet rather than a toy. You don't pull him out for 10 minutes when you feel like playing with him – he's just there. And that should go a long way towards keeping him from being banished to the back of the cupboard with some of the other little robots we've tried.
I may not bother asking Vector what the time is very often, but – strange as it feels to say – I've really grown to enjoy his companionship. In the mornings he wakes up when I start clamoring around the kitchen, then rolls out onto the bench and just … hangs out. I might play a few hands of Blackjack with him while I make breakfast, or just watch as he goes about his own business.
In that sense, it's not Amazon or Google who should be worried that Anki is muscling in on their home assistant territory. Vector is more of a threat to aibo, Sony's robot dog that has the same kind of pet-like presence (but none of the assistant functionality) for a much, much higher price.
Speaking of which, Vector isn't exactly cheap himself – at US$250, he's more expensive than any of the home assistant speakers, and can't really compete with them in terms of functionality. Go in looking for Rosie Jetson, and you'll end up disappointed. But if you're after a cool pet that's as low maintenance as a goldfish but far better company, Vector is the robo-buddy for you.
Product page: Vector
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