Friday, July 17, 2009

Bossa Nova's Sub-$100 Robots Move Fast, Birth 'Bebes' (Hands-on)

We stopped by Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh last week to get a sneak peek at a couple of new toys from Bossa Nova Robotics. The upstart company hopes it has found a niche in the toy market with Prime-8 and Penbo, which are inexpensive consumer robots spawned from multi-million dollar robotics
research at the university's Robotics Institute. "We have democratized
robots," co-founder John Fegali told us at the demo session.

start with Prime-8. It's a rough and tumble robot for boys that
resembles a gorilla -- if a gorilla were bright yellow and sped around
with arms that rotate in a complete circle. As co-founder and chief
operating officer David Palmer said: "One thing that never seems to go
out of fashion is action and dynamic toys." That's hard to argue, too.
Folks, this robot can move, and move fast, thanks to a a bi-pedal
design that transforms into a locomotive system when it gets on its
hands (which are wheels), making it glide across the floor at much the
same speed as an RC Car. It also doesn't require sensors to guide it
across the ground (sensors give the illusion of intelligence, but they
tend to slow robots down). Instead, Prime-8 is operated with an
infrared controller that is fairly responsive, though we did notice
some precision problems during out time controlling the bot.

has different 'emotions' -- if he's happy, he farts, but if he's angry,
he roars and glows red. He also plays a number of games (including
shooting toy rockets at, say, someone's little sister) and synchronizes
with other bots (we watched as co-founder and chief technology officer
Dr. Sarjoun Skaff made three Prime-8s do identical dances, but shhh,
that's not advertised on the packaging). For $99.99, Prime-8 has a lot
of features packed into its compact body. That said, the maing thing
that really sets apart this toy from other mass market robots, like Robosapien,
is its combination of wheels, two 'legs,' and it's ability to put on
some speed. We haven't seen a bot on the market that moves as fast as

Then there's Penbo--a furry pink penguin that oozes cute and waddles upright using the same technology as Prime-8. As with the baby-dino robot Pleo,
Penbo is autonomous and isn't operated with a remote. Instead of
action, it focuses on nurturing. Touch its heart, and the stomach opens
to reveal an egg that contains a fuzzy little 'BeBe.' You can remove
'BeBe' from the egg, and Penbo communicates' with it in a number of
ways. It might rock the baby to sleep or play hide-and-seek with the
offspring. According to Fegali, it took some hard work for the team to
really get in touch with its feminine side and decide what features to
use on Penbo. "It's actually really difficult to build a robot for
girls," he said. After plenty of market research and some one-on-one
conversations, the Bossa Nova team says it discovered that girls wanted
a more interactive and nurturing experience with a bot, as opposed to
Prime-8's action-packed design (what, girls don't like action?).

is a little bit cheaper ($69.99) than Prime-8, but it doesn't seem to
'do' as much as either. During our time with the bot, we just sort of
patted its head, listened to it 'sing,' and watched it waddle across
the floor. Plus, it's just so darn cute, with those big eyes, that it's
almost scary. Then again, we don't exactly think like a five-year-old
girl. Maybe Penbo will keep them distracted for hours on end? What do
we know, we're action-junkies.

Prime-8 will be available via QVC on July 25, and Penbo will debut in mid-August on the shopping channel. However, you can find both on
starting August 1. In a market that has lacked a 'must-have' product
since Furby, Bossa Nova might have a hot-seller on its hands, if for no
other reason than it fills some previously unaddressed voids: Designing
a robot for each gender is certainly a smart move, we think, and
personally, we can't wait to get our hands for more time on both of

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