SAN JOSE, Calif.—Dog owners have the daily, wonderful experience of being greeted at the door by a furry thing that loves them. The rest of us, who are too busy or too allergic for a pet, have historically missed out on this. Rejoice, you sad, dog-less people, technology is coming to the rescue.
Meet CHiP, a toy robot designed by WowWee Robotics. He made his debut today at the RoboBusiness Conference in San Jose, California.
CHiP looks like the robo-offspring of a cat and dog. He is location-aware, thanks to GPS, and can "see" and react to the world around him, thanks to infrared and Bluetooth sensors—so he won't run into walls or fall down stairs. There's no camera in him, but he comes with a sensor-embedded ball he can chase. He moves forward, backward and sideways, thanks to wheels attached to his white legs. He has been "trained" with pet videos from YouTube, so his movements resemble that of a real animal. He's constantly moving around, looking alive.
You can watch him in action:
CHiP also has a smart band, a kind of 2-way digital leash, that his owner wears to keep tabs on him. But here's the kind of creepy part: it also lets the robo-dog know where you are, so he can react to you. That's how he detects when you're approaching. So if you come home from work or a disappointing date, he "knows" to greet you, wag his robo-tail and make you feel loved, like any good real-life pet would.
It's an artificially intelligent pet, that gives people "all the friend and none of the mess," said Davin Sufer, the cheif technology officer, during a panel at the RoboBusiness conference. This pet is really low maintenance. When his battery is running low, he goes back to his charging station, just like a Roomba, but cuter.
This product, which will cost $199 and be ready for sale in May 2016, is part of a growing number of smart toys making their way into the home. The new Star Wars movie comes with an adorable BB-8 robot. And Mattel is making a new modern Barbie that is powered by artificial intelligence. Making toys "smart" will enable new kinds of relationships with our plastic play pals that haven't been possible before. Intelligence, or at least the perception of it, allows us to relate to beings in more intimate ways because we can start to ascribe intent and emotions to things, even when they're not capable of them.
"Once you have that intent…people treat it like it's alive," Sufer said. Once robots "seem to have this awareness, that takes them from being an inert piece of plastic…to something you think of as a being."
One of the challenges of building toys that are smart is packing a lot of AI into a small package. Robots that are connected to the cloud, as some of these newer toy robots are, helps with that. A collective robobrain in the cloud will help robots in our homes draw on the collective knowledge of the internet, much like what has happened with smartphones and apps.
According to new estimates by the Boston Consulting Group, the consumer robotics market will grow to $9 billion by 2025. With so much money on the line, we can expect better and smarter companion bots to keep coming our way.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.