Move Over, R2-D2: Friendly Robot Sidekick Vector to Hit Market This Fall

(photo courtesy Anki)

It looks like a toy tractor. It's barely bigger than a gerbil. And it's super cute.

As Vector, a "home robot with personality" trundles around a San Francisco conference table, it responds to questions ("What's the weather in Seattle?") and commands ("Wake up") much like Siri or Alexa would. Its square "face," which looks like an old CRT monitor, is remarkably expressive as it blinks its big green "eyes," emitting a series of squeaks and beeps, and answering questions in spoken English. It plays games and even "dances" to music.

"It's the first truly smart, interactive robotic character for the home that you can live with 24/7," said Mark Palatucci, co-founder of Anki, the well-funded San Francisco startup that developed Vector.

Vector can see, hear, feel, think and roam its environment, Palatucci said. It's always on and connected to the cloud so it can keep learning, as well as look up information online.

"This is like a cross between your phone and your pet," said Wendy Ju, an assistant professor of human-robot interaction at New York's Cornell Tech. She compared it to a chatbot, or an artificial intelligence that can receive, understand and send messages: "It seems like a chatbot in a robot form factor. I've argued for a long time that chatbots should be able to move around."

Many people will enjoy a sense of companionship with a robot that can understand verbal communications and can reply in kind, she said. The device makes eye contact with humans, looking at them as they "converse."

"Vector's killer feature is that he's 'alive,'" said Peter Nguyen, Anki's head of communications. "That's how he's different than anything else on the market."

Initially Anki is pursuing a tech-savvy audience: early adopters on Kickstarter. They can order Vector for $200 for 30 days starting Wednesday, with delivery on Oct. 9. Vector will hit the mass retail market Oct. 12 for $250; a free developer's kit, for those who want to customize Anki with their own software, will be out next year.

Long-term, Anki has big ambitions.

"Our goal is working toward a robot in every home," Palatucci said.

That may be a stretch, said Adam Wright, senior analyst for smart homes at research group IDC.

"To be successful, Vector needs to demonstrate clear value to the consumer through a robust portfolio of services and integration with a wide variety of hardware devices," he said.

Vector doesn't yet have those connections, but Anki hopes that tech-savvy Kickstarter buyers will create lots of interesting applications for it.

But meanwhile, in the field of personal digital assistants, it faces formidable competition from Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri, Wright said.

"Google and Amazon are already cementing thenselves in the smart home; I think Vector will be challenged to position itself against those incumbents," he said. "Is it a toy or a home health aid or a security camera? I'm not sure what it is."

But Ju, the robotics professor, said Vector may out-charm the behemoths. "Alexa can't turn toward you when you're talking to it," she said.

"Character" is a word the Vector team stresses. Its team of roboticists, film animators, engineers and game designers include Dreamworks and Pixar veterans, who helped make Vector and its look-alike predecessor, a toy robot called Cozmo, as endearing as Wall-E and other film characters.

Vector's "face" can show over 1,500 animations to express emotions in a range of scenarios. For instance, it acts happy when its owner comes home from work and displays a different type of joy when it wins a game.

"Your cell phone doesn't do that," Palatucci said.

Cozmo, which retails for $180 and has far fewer features than Vector, was a top-selling toy on Amazon last year. Vector said it's sold 1.5 million Cozmo devices and brought in almost $100 million in revenue last year. It also has over $200 million in venture backing.

"Cozmo is the robot toy I advise people to buy because it's really well built and continually updated," Ju said. "Vector seems even more appealing but still a bit half-baked. People won't buy it to find out what the weather is. It will need some cool applications to succeed."

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @csaid ___

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