Vector, known as the good robot, is the latest innovation from Anki, the company behind both the Cozmo and the Overdrive RC cars. The company is marketing Vector as a home robot since it answers questions, plays games and even emits a purr when petted.
Anki, however, is less concerned about what Vector can do for you, focusing instead on what it does on its own. So what does it do? Using a sensor, it maps out its surroundings, learning to recognize objects and people, as well as responding to sound.
”We want him to provide value and have an emotional bond with you,” says Amy Claussen, senior designer at Anki. “For adults. What is that? Okay, so that is both some entertaining activities, but largely giving some utility to make mundane tasks more fun and more enjoyable.”
”What we found is that the act of me looking at you infers that I understand what you’re saying,” Claussen adds. “So if the robot flips all the way around, even if he doesn’t understand, people would wait [for the robot].” Instead, Vector reacts when it hears you, and turns around only when it can provide an answer.
Rather than answering with a generic “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that,” Vector will simply act confused, which is your cue to rephrase the question. And when the robot understands something correctly, it will shimmy, which is part of the company’s attempt to make the robot not only useful but also endearing.
Vector has a custom voice assistant, rather than licensing Alexa or Google Assistant, which CEO Boris Sofman describes as a “characterful” decision. “He has a personality, he has his own quirks, his own weird behaviors, his own desires. If you flip a switch and start having Alexa's voice come out, it completely kills the fiction of that character,” Sofman says. ”We’re very intentionally not positioning this as a competitor to Alexa. We have a thesis that ‘characterful’ utility is going to trump basic utility because there’s a lot of cases where that’s going to be a more enjoyable form of interaction.”
When you ask Vector for the weather, it will turn to you and if, for example, it is raining, drops of water will cover its face and it will act annoyed. If acting as a timer, it will convulse when the time is up. ”The fact that we have this character allows us to not have him just deliver the information, but also have him be subjected to the information,” says Dei Gaztelumendi, character lead at Anki. “He might endure the weather event, it might rain on him, and he might have an opinion about that.”
Vector will be visibly excited when you arrive home or go to sleep when you turn the lights off. The robot was inspired by exotic pets like fennec foxes and sugar gliders, which generally react out of curiosity to their surroundings rather than continually interacting. “These animals are not putting up a performance for anyone, but they’re still really compelling to watch,” he says. “They’re in the business of taking it all in and exploring the environment and relating in very reactive ways.” The robot’s miniature 720p camera allows it to understand the world around it. As it moves around, it generates a 3D map of its environment, detecting, and mapping obstacles.
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It also recognizes individual faces, therefore it reacts more excitedly when it knows someone. It also senses when you are looking at it, and may even ask for a fist bump. Vector will also knock into things to see if the move or nudge you to get your attention. Yet it’s not expected to be needy. If it sees you looking at it, it will engage, if not it will do its own thing.
”If [it’s too noisy and] somebody turns a robot off, you’ve lost. On the other hand, if all he ever does is sit there until you ask for a voice command, then you might as well buy some other product,” says Brad Neuman, AI lead at Anki. “There’s this balance that’s pretty hard to strike. That’s where simulation and mood systems come into play.”
Anki will continually update Vector’s software, enabling more functions. Part of the robot’s journey is to determine how it will adapt individually to life with you, though the company does not want it to be seen as a pet robot, rather as an autonomous home robot.