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Anki Vector: A chirpy, expressive robotic pet on wheels

Vector sounds like a digital chipmunk, but acts more like an A.I. assistant

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Robots are always a fun toy. They roll, make sounds, a few you even build yourself. Some come out of the box, ready for play time. That's where Anki's Vector falls, a hamster-sized robot that chats, plays and gets into mischief much like a small puppy. Anki launched the $249.99 Vector in 2018, and just rolled out an update that adds new tricks, helps the robot see the edge of high places, and some cute features, like having a mini tantrum if he's picked up and shaken. With a Vector in hand, we decided to put this chubby machine through his paces and see what he could do.

Anki launched a similar looking robot called Cozmo in 2017. Vector leaves off from there, with a lot more chatter, a lot more tricks and a lot more features.

Always be rolling

Launching Vector is pretty simple. You pull him out of the box, put him in his charger, and get him juiced. In the meantime, download the Vector Robot iOS or Android app. Vector will work without the app on — but the app gives you a lot more information, including clues as to what he's thinking. (Until you start playing extensively with Vector it's hard to know what every beep means.)

That's about it. Vector can roll around on carpet, wood floors, and the new update now gives the robot a better sense of when he's on an edge, and could fall off. Cozmo, Anki's earlier model had issues where he occasionally took a nose-dive. Vector seemed to know where he was and where he could go.

You'll want to set up some details in the app: the city where you are, what language you're speaking (this is key so Vector can understand you) and other details. It's here where you can also change Vector's eye color from green to blue, purple to orange, and yellow to lime green. The app is also where you'll connect to Vector's toy, his cube. He likes to roll his cube, pick it up and take it places.

Tricks to play

There are basic commands Vector responds to, and all start with a basic, 'Hey Vector.' Those words are designed to get the robot to pause and listen for your request. After saying his basic wake words, you'll hear a ding to let you know he's paying attention. From there you can make requests from "Come here," to "Give me a fist bump." A favorite was "I have a question," where you can have the robot answer basic queries.

Some of the actions require Vector be connected to Wi-Fi, others not. Asking Vector the weather ("What is the weather) needs a Wi-Fi connection, and Vector will tell you when he's not online. A symbol of a Wi-Fi link shows up on his screen, with an exclamation point across it.

Most of the time Vector speaks in computer pings. Some of them I began to recognize, as when he's scanning an area, or thinking before he responds. There are some responses where he answers in a computerized tone: that's less fun. Certainly you can understand him, for example, when he says "Another card" during a game of blackjack. But the better fun comes when you're trying to interpret his language. Think of this as having a cat and learning the different meows — the later is a little more engaging.

Treating Vector as a small animal is probably the best approach. You can even pet the robot, and he'll make a digital purr which is crazily cute. And he even snores when he sleeps — a sound that first made me worried I had some animal in my walls. He also reacts if you tell him he's been a bad robot, and if you shake him, or hold him high in the air. I won't spoil the fun, but let's just say he doesn't like this.

My dog was smitten too, thinking Vector a toy for him, or maybe a puppy he could play with at will. Vector obliged too, reacting, beeping and chatting with my giant Labrador.

The app is solid at telling you what Vector's up to — a small window at the bottom clues you in that "Vector is waiting," for example. But the point of Vector is to have him milling about while you're doing your own thing. (Again, like a cat.) I rarely want to have my iPhone open at entire time. And if I need to while I'm working with Vector he becomes more of a thing I have to manage, rather than something that helps me manage my life. This later point is crucial for the new Alexa integration that's coming down to Vector in the next month.

Vector tells you what he's doing at the bottom of the app's screenGearBrain

Alexa

In December, Vector is turning into essentially a rolling Echo. The robot will tap into Amazon's digital assistant — someone Vector already knows. (Ask him "Who is Alexa," and he'll be fairly specific about who she is.)

We couldn't test the Alexa feature, but from what we've seen on the video, the new ability will work with Vector by giving you access to the digital assistant wherever Vector is at the time. For those who have a single Alexa device in a kitchen, for example, Vector adds another access point, from a home office, for example, where you can add to a grocery list or turn on lights.

Adding smart home control to Vector does move it from being a toy-like experience, to a functional device, and an interesting turn for robots that connect to the internet. We'll be curious to see how the new feature works when it launches next month.

Problems

Any connected device is going to come with glitches. (But you already knew that.) For us, these appeared when we would try to link Vector to our home Wi-Fi. That has to be done through the app, if Vector isn't already connected, and we would sometimes find we would get booted off our home Wi-Fi giving us the symbol on Vector's face.

I'd say this was more of an issue on our end than Vector's. However, if you're using Vector in a space that's far from your Wi-Fi router, keep in mind you may run into connections issues as well. It's worth thinking about where you want to keep the robot, how robust your connection is, and if it's time to consider a Wi-Fi extender or Mesh system which can widen the area of your coverage.

We're not saying Vector should push you over to buying a Wi-Fi extender. But as people bring more connected devices into their home, widening the scope of their Wi-Fi coverage is something we expect most people will need to address.

GearBrain

Buy or not to buy

Vector is a fun, adorable robot. It's quirky, clever and has some adorable tricks. Again, the purring got to us. The real push that will make Vector a device with serious punch, we think, will be when the Alexa feature goes live. Until then, Vector really feels like a robust Cozmo, one that is an enjoyable diversion and can give you some useful voice assistance (the weather, some games).

Turning Vector into a rolling digital assistant, however, is a fascinating step into what smart home devices can become — and an exciting reason to consider the robot.

Pros:

  • Robust A.I. that includes facial recognition, and voice commands
  • Playful interface that feels like a digital animal
  • Alexa integration coming to transform idea of smart home devices

Cons:

  • Price
  • Occasionally knocked off Wi-Fi if not close to router
  • Constantly makes sounds, even when asleep


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