I was recently asked by a small child ‘what is a robot?’, which lead me to refer to the font of all knowledge – Wikipedia – which suggests there isn’t a universally agreed definition of what a robot is, but it’s along the lines of a machine which can conduct complicated tasks either autonomously or with guidance from humans.
Cultural references to robots are many. For those who remember the 1980s, a cutesy robot featured in Rocky 4, and suddenly, Metal Mickey was everywhere. Mickey was hard to avoid, as was his catchphrase ‘Boogie Boogie’ and his musical output. Looking further back than that, the metallic robots envisaged in the popular culture of the 1950s were supposed to be in every home by the end of the 20th century.
Flash forward to today, and we don’t appear to have made intelligent robot life a daily feature of our lives yet, and as the toy industry is so good at launching mass market versions of newly developed technologies for kids to play with, what does this mean for the toy aisle?
The reality is we still have domestic environments which are hugely complex for robots to navigate. To create a robot which can move up and down steps, open the fridge, plug in the hoover, is not easy. The technology just isn’t there, and the cost to buy a robot with any truly useful domestic capability is ten times more than paying a human to do the same tasks and more for a year.
In fact, it’s more likely that over time we will acquire an array of robots, each doing the particular task it has been developed for.
The reality is that we have had basic robots for years – Bigtrak, Furby, Interactive Yoda, Robosapien and Dave The Monkey deliver a robotic play experience for kids. The critical point though is to deliver a play experience that is fun, and which utilises the technology to enhance the play experience.
Robotics allow us to bring to life characters and toys which enable kids to immerse themselves more deeply in their play. Kids love characters from TV shows and films, especially where they can interact and project themselves into the storyline. As robotics advances at pace in the next decade or so, the mass market will see more and more functionality at realistic consumer prices. So for toys, the point is to continue creating more lifelike robots, with increasing interaction, and the ability to conduct physical tasks which have great efficacy in play.
Battling robots might not be able to plug in the hoover, but as long as they can swing their limbs in a variety of ways, the play value could be immense. If you’ve ever played Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, you’ll see the potential if the robots could compete and enter combat on their own terms. But what if the robots were in monster bodies, or dressed as predators from the animal kingdom, dinosaurs or aliens?
We should expect to see more robots in toy aisles over the next decade, but don’t presume they will be silver, metallic and space age. More likely they will be furry and will roar or purr. And it’s likely you’ll still be making your own coffee and doing your own washing up.