Monday, July 13, 2009

Toy robot penguin purrs with delight

Prime-8 runs on his arms, stops to sniff whatever's in his way and
even can shoot a plastic rocket at an annoying little sister. Penbo
purrs when she's petted, and plays games with the chirping baby penguin
that hatches from her tummy.

Robots are all the rage this summer as toys from the latest
"Transformers" and "Terminator" movies fill stores, and Carnegie Mellon
University spinoff Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. plans to start selling its
own two playthings with personalities in coming weeks on cable shopping
channel QVC and online retailer

The yellow, gorilla-faced Prime-8 and chubby pink penguin Penbo
showed off their tricks, speed and agility Thursday at an event at the
Oakland campus.

They're the first toys developed with technology from CMU's Robotics
Institute to debut commercially, but others are in the design and
prototype stages.

For consumers, "The most successful application for robots so far is
in the toy business," said John Feghali, one of Bossa Nova's three

Inspired by Furby and other interactive toys, Prime-8 and Penbo use
mechanics adapted from a cockroach-like robot named RHex created
several years ago at CMU.

Both toys walk or run on two rotating limbs, Prime-8 on his arms and Penbo on her legs.

They don't trip on carpet as many toy robots do, their creators say.
And using sensors, they respond to their owners' moves, play games and
dance and fall asleep if they're ignored. Blow a kiss to Penbo, and
she'll kiss back.

Prime-8, geared for boys ages 8 to 12, goes on sale for $99.99 on
QVC on July 25. Penbo, for girls 4 to 6 and costing $69.99, will follow
with her first TV appearance in mid-August. will feature both products starting Aug. 1, and they'll be in stores for the holidays.

Feghali along with Bossa Nova cofounders David Palmer and Sarjoun
Skaff tested their play robots with children at Carnegie Science Center
on the North Shore. The toys will continue to be used there as part of
the Robot Workshop at the science center's new Roboworld, billed as the
world's biggest permanent robotics exhibition.

Feghali, Palmer and Skaff met through CMU, shared a liking for bossa nova music and talked about starting a robotics business.

They decided to make entertaining and educational toys that would be
priced competitively after watching a group of toddlers giggle as RHex
chased them around a campus lawn.

The partners founded their company four years ago, secured money
from several sources including the Pittsburgh Technology Council's
annual EnterPrize contest, and brought in former Mattel, Hasbro and MGA
Entertainment executive Martin Hitch as CEO.

While toy robots undoubtedly are popular with kids, gauging sales isn't easy.

Electronics claimed $865 million of the toy industry's total $21.6
billion in sales last year, but interactive technology is showing up in
lots of classic playthings ranging from dolls to board games. The Japan
Robotics Association forecasts that the market for personal and
lifestyle robots will grow to $15 billion by 2015.

For kids, "Robotic toys are emulating what is happening in everyday
life," said Adrienne Citrin, spokeswoman for the New York-based Toy
Industry Association. Hasbro's iDog works with an iPod, for example.

As to truly interactive toys, industry expert Len Simonian said
advances in technology have cut production costs and made robot
playthings available to more children.

"They're no longer cost-prohibitive. You could make a great toy 10
years ago," he said, but if it retailed for $500 a manufacturer
wouldn't sell many.

Most of the 500 researchers at CMU's Robotics Institute work on
building robots for a variety of tasks including farming, aiding in
surgery and exploring underground mines.

But the center has spawned a few other startup companies that could follow Bossa Nova's path.

Modular Robotics LLC is working on a robotics construction kit
that's something like Lego Mindstorms, but unique because every piece
has a computer inside, research director Mark Gross said.

The company is testing software that includes social networking —
kids will be able to share their creations over the Internet, he said.
The product could be introduced late next year.

And Interbots LLC, creator of the animatronic Quasi robot used at
fairs, is working on software for its first interactive toy and has
completed a second prototype and talked with manufacturers, CEO Seema
Patel said.

"Our goal is to have the little guy on the shelves in time for the Christmas 2010 season," she said.

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