Monday, July 13, 2009

Robotics company unveils obnoxious gorilla, adorable penguin that combine science and 'cool'

Combine cockroach mobility with high technology and the unlikely results are robot toys that mix science with "the cool factor."

Or at least that's the hope of Bossa Nova Robotics, a
Pittsburgh-based company and Carnegie Mellon University spin-off that's
combined high-tech with low cost to produce "Prime-8" and "Penbo."

Prime-8 is a cleverly obnoxious robotic gorilla that combines speed
and attitude, while Penbo is "an adorable penguin that's all about
interaction and nurturing," said David Palmer, Bossa Nova co-founder
and chief operating officer.

No toy robot ever moved as fast as Prime-8, Bossa Nova officials claim.

And each toy promises to entertain and educate children by
integrating toys with technology. Prime-8 in particular does show prime
potential to agitate parents, and what better formula for toy success?

"This is all about big dreams," said John Feghali, Bossa Nova
co-founder. "We wanted to create lifelike robots that act like they are
living creatures with animation and motion married together."

Bossa Nova unveiled the toys yesterday during a four-hour news event
at Carnegie Mellon. It will launch Prime-8 in August on the QVC
Shopping Network, with a similar launch of Penbo in September.

Prime-8 is a yellow gorilla-like creature that employs "innovative
biped technology." Translation: It rolls on its curved arms over
complex terrain, be it floor, rug, dirt, grass or gravel. It also can
stand, roll over, lean, boogie and stand on its head.

But that's not nearly the extent of it. Prime-8 also grunts, turns
happy, sniffs furniture, and just as quickly beats on the floor in rage
and "goes bananas" with blue eyes turning fiery red. It's angry bellow
is second only to King Kong's.

And Prime-8 also farts robustly. (There's even a fart button on the remote.)

Prime-8 can guard a room and protect its boss against siblings and
parents by firing rubber-tipped rockets. The robot toy is geared toward
boys as old as 12.

In all, Prime-8 performs 100 functions.

Despite employing the latest robotic technology, the toy carries a retail price of $99.99.

Penbo, cute, fuzzy and pink, is far more civilized and represents the rare example of a robot designed for girls.

The waddling penguin blinks big blue eyes and flaps tiny wings while
interacting readily with its owner. It can waddle some dance steps in
unison with other Penbos.

The plush penguin also purrs, speaks fluent "Penguish," and, unlike
Prime-8, shows no signs of aggression toward siblings or other humans.

Push Penbo's heart and pleasant reactions are unleashed. Girls will play with Penbo, but Bossa Nova prefers the term "nurture."

Penbo also lays an egg that hatches a "Bebe Penbo" that is a
surprise color of pink, blue, green or purple. Bebe and mom sing a duet
and interact with each other by playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek.
Mom even rocks the fuzzy little ball to sleep.

Penbo retails for $69.99, according to a company brochure, although there's an indication the cost may shoot up to $79.99.

The longer children play with Penbo and Prime-8, the more features
are released, so Bossa Nova claims boredom is less likely to set in.
Both robots play a number of games with children.

Bossa Nova, started four years ago by three Carnegie Mellon
graduates, developed the toys with technology licensed from the

The company quotes a Japan Robotics Association forecast that the
market for personal and lifestyle robots will grow to $15 billion by
2015, with the United States ABI Research predicting that about 75
percent of that market will involve entertainment robotics, and most
notably children's robots.

Key to Bossa Nova's success was a study of how cockroaches cross
rough terrain quickly. The roach moves its legs, which hit the ground
and propel it forward without thought or sensory perception.

That same idea was used to create RHex, a robot with six curved
flaps serving as legs that rotate without sensors guiding foot
placement. RHex uses that method to cover almost any terrain, including
climbing steps.

Refining RHex technology, Bossa Nova created its toys powered by
alkaline batteries. They include infrared sensors but to interact with
people rather than for movement.

"The technology behind Prime-8 and Penbo previously has been seen in
multi-million dollar research projects," said Sarjoun Skaff, chief
technology officer for Bossa Nova. "To make this kind of technology
available to children is unprecedented, and what we've seen in all our
focus groups is that both kids and adults are impressed by Penbo and
Prime-8's technology and lifelike movements."

The Toy Industry Association Inc. could not be reached for comment on the robot toys and their potential in a tough toy market.

Bossa Nova, with offices in Pittsburgh and Hong Kong, missed the
release date this year to sell its toys through Wal-Mart, Target and
Toys R Us. But the toys will be available on, with plans to
have them available in department and toy stores next year.

Still, the company expects to sell 100,000 copies of each robot this
year, with early indications pointing toward success, said Martin
Hitch, Bossa Nova chief executive officer.

The company says this type of toy is the future. There's nothing
primitive about Prime-8, they claim, referring to the technology.

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