Sixteen years ago Furby, one of the first robotic consumer toys to gain global attention, was launched. Since its introduction during the holiday season of 1998, robotics in toys has come a long way. At the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas there were a host of companies selling toy robots that went much beyond your regular concept of a toy. Here Antonio Espingardeiro, IEEE member and robotics researcher, explains how “there are more robotic toys now more than ever, especially as the robotics technology has been fine-tuned over the years. Dr Espingardeiro is member of the IEEE and the man behind P37, a robo-nurse for the elderly.
Robotic toys are becoming a part of our lives through the form of science, technology, engineering and maths. Robotic toys involve creativity, learning and a do-it-yourself philosophy. In terms of hardware most of the available kits provide sensing capabilities through IR, ultrasonic sensors and cameras. They have small servos/motors which allow robots to move around. In terms of software usually there is an intuitive programming language that runs on laptops, personal computers or mobile devices. Users connect their devices and program their robots simply by dragging and dropping components into the user interface. The programmes follow a sequence of logical events that can be altered and tested through a trial and error approach. The most advanced kits can recognise colors, movements or even speech. Beyond this philosophy there are kits in which you just imagine a robot/machine and assemble parts to see the outcome of it.
Are toys our first and most important point of contact with robots? Was this is the way you imagined it will be a few decades back?
We have been interacting with automatons for some time now via withdrawing money, car park systems, self-checkout machines, automated vending machines etc. In my mind the progress of Robotics and Automation was related to production, efficiency, supervision, control, health care and well being.
It is likely that we will see significant progress in terms of robotics and artificial intelligence over the next decades. However the cost/performance of robotics and automation still represents a big challenge. That transition is likely to be gradual with small iterations of robotics hardware and software (intelligence) offering progressive added value to final customers.