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CMU spinoff Anki's latest robot modeled after the family pet

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, 1:54 p.m.

The makers of the hottest toy on Amazon last year said their next product isn’t a toy at all.

Anki, the California-based Carnegie Mellon University spinoff company behind the widely popular Cozmo, introduced Vector on Wednesday.

Hanns Tappeiner, a CMU graduate and co-founder of Anki, said he wants Vector to be more like the family dog or cat.

Vector will be always on, ready to greet you when you walk in your house, chill out with your while you sit and watch TV and help you in the kitchen with things like determining how many ounces are in a cup or setting a timer.

“He can see. He can hear. He can feel. He can think,” Tappeiner said. “Vector will feel alive as opposed to just a little appliance that laughs.”

Anki launched a Kickstarter campaign Wednesday to give people early access to Vector. More than 700 people backed the campaign in its first seven hours.

Vector looks a lot like Cozmo on the outside, but the robot is a different animal on the inside, Tappeiner said. Cozmo has about 340 parts. Vector has nearly 700 parts. Cozmo paired with your smartphone and used its resources for computing. Vector handles much of the computing onboard thanks to a tiny processor powerful enough for a tablet but small enough to fit in the robot’s head. Cozmo didn’t run an operating system. Vector runs a modified version of Linux.

Vector has four microphones so it can react to sound. It will look toward loud noises. Say your name to Vector, and the robot will use its super-wide camera to remember what you look like and your name. It’s deep learning capabilities allow it to remember faces and sounds and how it interacts with particular people. If grandpa doesn’t like Vector, the robot will learn to give him space.

Vector can also recognize parts of a person — an elbow, leg, foot or hand — and know that a person is in the room.

Tappeiner, who graduated from CMU’s Robotics Institute with fellow co-founders Boris Sofman and Mark Palatucci, could nerd out about the tech specs inside Vector for a while. But the team at Anki knows that what will make Vector a boom or bust is its character.

More than a dozen people work in Anki’s animation and character development team. The team modeled Vector’s facial expressions, mannerism, sounds and personality on dogs, cats and classic, lovable robots from movies, like “Wall-E” and “Big Hero 6.”

To do this, Anki put together a team that includes people who worked on those movies and with top animation studios like Pixar, DreamWorks and LucasFilm. The company brought in video game designers and hired a handful of CMU-trained computer and electrical engineering graduates who also happened to minor in theater, Tappeiner said.

While Cozmo and Anki’s other toys, the Drive and OverDrive racing sets, were meant for children, Vector is meant for adults. That’s not to say the robot won’t be a blast for kids, too.

“What we’re trying to do is get robots into people’s homes,” Tappeiner said. “It’s really designed to be part of the family.”

Anki’s three products, Cozmo and the two racing sets, represent a deliberate development process, each building on and improving on the previous and all pointing toward more advanced technology. When Anki started raising its first round of funding in 2012, it hadn’t made a single product, but it had renderings and animations of Cozmo, Tappeiner said.

“It was all designed as building blocks,” Tappeiner said. “We had to move through those steps.”

Cozmo, released in late 2016, was sold out by Christmas that year. More than 1.5 million have been sold. Cozmo was the best-selling toy on Amazon in 2017, Tappeiner said. The little robot helped Anki net $100 million in revenue last year.

Vector robot will hit store shelves Oct. 12 and sell for $249.

And Tappeiner said the company is eyeing 2020 for its next product, though he wouldn’t spill any more details.

Maybe Vector knows.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Aaron at 412-336-8448, aaupperlee@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
Vector, the latest robot from Anki.
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