With so many toy robot kits pouring out now, kids of the near future might not believe us when we tell them that toys haven't always moved and "thought" for themselves. A new kit called bots_alive, which adds AI and augmented reality elements to an existing Hexbug Spider, is now crawling out of the toy box and onto Kickstarter.
Teaching kids to program seems to be a common goal of toy robots: Each of the Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar's segments are individual commands, and Photon uses his backstory to keep kids motivated to learn. Others, like Cozmo and Sphero's BB-8, are more focused on fun.
And then there's the Hexbug. These relatively cheap robo-bugs are normally remote-controlled, but the bots_alive kit is designed to give them a life of their own. The brains come from an artificial intelligence technique born in the MIT Media Lab, which is goal-oriented but aims to add a more natural layer of thinking to them: these robots will make mistakes and learn from them, and hesitate while they ponder what to do next.
"The bots_alive kit makes an autonomous robot creature out of a popular remote control toy," says Brad Knox, founder and CEO of bots_alive. "Our vision is to create artificially-intelligent robot creatures that feel organic and alive. By packaging our cutting-edge technology into an affordable kit, we're excited to bring more organic, lifelike robot characters into the hands of enthusiasts around the world."
To give the normally-brainless Hexbugs their newfound smarts, the bots_alive kit hijacks the infrared input they normally receive from a remote control. Commands are instead sent through an infrared blaster hooked into a smartphone, where an app does all the thinking. The result is a robot that's still basically being remote controlled, with the control outsourced to the AI.
That AI decides what to do based on what's in the world around the robot, and it "sees" that world through the IR blaster. Sticking an included decal on top of the Hexbug Spider allows the system to recognize and track the robot, and the same thing goes for a set of "vision blocks" that users can stack around it. The robot will, for example, seek out the blue block, while avoiding the red blocks, allowing you to create mazes and barricades for the spider to navigate, and change them up to help or hinder the Hexbug.
Each kit can support up to two robots at the same time, allowing you to race them to the goal or see if they solve the problem differently – after all, the developers say that the robots will learn and develop their own personalities over time.
A Kickstarter campaign is kicking off today to seek funding for bots_alive. Pledges start at US$35 for the basic kit, which includes the decal, IR blaster, the iOS or Android app and five vision blocks – one blue and four red. If you don't already have a Hexbug Spider, the Complete Kit tier throws one in, plus the basic kit, for $60, and additional vision blocks will be available for $15. The campaign is shooting for $15,000 and if all goes to plan, the company expects to ship the kits in September.