In part 1 of this series, we covered some of the simplest, most utilitarian robots on the market.
Here in part 2, the robots get a lot more fun. These robots are designed to educate, thrill, and entertain.
Like we said in part 1, robots basically come in three categories:
- Useful robots: These guys mostly perform dirty, boring, difficult, or otherwise inconvenient tasks, like cleaning and maintenance
- Toys/games: Robots that are meant to be fun and educational
- Assistants: These are the most advanced robots, integrating many different capabilities to help streamline your relationship with the technology you use
There are plenty of robotics toys on the market; some are great, some not so much. Here are a few super popular fun and educational robots that stand out above the pack.
Toy robots bridge the gap between modern digital products, like video games, and traditional hands-on toys. Virtually all of them interface with your smartphone or tablet, as well as offering the chance to build, design, and interact with something tangible.
Furthermore, there’s a heavy emphasis on education, especially when it comes to helping kids learn the basics of coding.
Each robot aims at a slightly different audience – some are meant to be fun to play with and offer minor educational opportunities as a side benefit, while others are designed with learning as their primary goal.
Lego Boost is great for younger kids. You can build five very different robots from the same kit, each of which can of course be further modified with more legos. A lot of the fun of this toy is in the building, as you would expect from any Lego product.
More proof that 80s nostalgia has taken over our culture: the Lego Boost’s humanoid robot, Vernie, looks a lot like #5 from the movie Short Circuit. You can expect this to go over most kids’ heads, but their parents are sure to notice. This strikes me as clever marketing, because after all, the parents are going to be the ones doing the buying.
Lego Boost teaches kids an extremely rudimentary form of coding. There’s no typing involved, and they won’t learn a real coding language. But you can control the robot by building code strings made of individual blocks. In this basic form of coding, each block represents a specific action – move forward, turn, speak, etc.
Programming the robot to make it perform a series of actions gets kids thinking about how to structure computer code without having to learn a coding language first, which is far too advanced for, say, a toddler to master. It’s a clever way to introduce them to the concept with a super low barrier of entry.
With all of the build possibilities, the impressive array of behaviors you can program in any order you like, and the innovative ways you can control your robot with your mobile device, younger kids will have plenty of room to grow and explore with this game. So while it’s not the most sophisticated robot on the market, it definitely has the all-important re-playability factor, and it’s an ideal jumping-in point for understanding robotics and coding.
Oh, and you can make your robot fart as much as you like, which they’ll never get sick of.
Sphero Mini and Sphero Sprk+
The smallest and simplest of all the robots on this list, it’s easy to underestimate the Sphero at first glance.
But don’t be fooled, this toy is way more than it appears.
The mini and the Sprk+ are more similar than they are different, as they share many of the same functions. But while the Sprk+ is built and marketed more toward the educational crowd, the mini focuses on being as fun as possible.
Despite being simple in its construction, the mini is a blast to play with right out of the box. The sheer number of things you can do with it show how far a little ingenuity can go in making a simple toy tons of fun.
There are a number of different ways to use your smartphone as a remote control for the Sphero mini. You can control it by dragging your finger across the screen, tilting your phone, or even by propping up your phone and then either tilting your head or making faces at it.
The Sphero mini app also comes with a few arcade style video games that you can play, using the mini as a handheld controller similar to a joystick.
So whether you’re using your smartphone to maneuver the mini through a table-top obstacle course, zipping it around the living room by making weird facial expressions, or using the mini as a video game controller while you fly through space shooting asteroids, this toy offers a ton of pure, simple fun crammed into a very small package.
The Sprk+, on the other hand, is touted more as an educational tool. The only functional differences are that the Sprk+ is waterproof and more durable, and its outside is clear so that you can see its inner workings in action.
Both the mini and the Sprk+ are compatible with Sphero Edu, the app that is used as the learning and exploration platform. The Sphero Edu app includes a seemingly endless number of lessons and challenges that help kids learn about problem solving and basic coding.
With the Sprk+, Sphero also strives to add an element of connection and collaboration to the learning experience. Users can create and post their own challenges and problem solving games for other users to find through the Edu app. So the more people that join, the more the app has to offer.
One thing that is often overlooked is that play is one of the most natural and powerful forms of learning. The Sprk+ is a great tool in this regard, and teachers have begun adopting it and integrating it into their early STEM education programs. Both the Sphero Mini and the Sprk+ show that learning is often most effective when it’s fun.
If you’re really into robots, at some point you get excited about a robot fight to the death, as evidenced by the popularity of the show BattleBots.
But real robot fights are way too expensive and time consuming for most people to even consider.
Enter MekaMon, which uses augmented reality (AR) to bridge the divide between physical and digital warfare.
MekaMon is a real life nuts-and-bolts robot that you control with your mobile device, but it fights in augmented reality. There are two basic modes of play with MekaMon: you can battle head-to-head with another MekaMon, or fight against computer-generated virtual enemies.
The way MekaMon moves is so advanced that it is a surreal experience just watching it walk around the living room. In fact, its movement is so impressive that if this was just a remote-controlled robot, a lot of people would still be willing to dish out the money for it. There’s something disturbingly life-like about it, as if you’re watching a giant four-legged spider dance around.
The head-to-head battles between two MekaMon are highly strategic, and apparently can’t be won with arcade-style button mashing. It’s fascinating to watch two MekaMon doing battle with each other, even if you’re not watching through the smartphone or tablet controllers.
There’s a little bit of a learning curve when mastering the battle aspect of MekaMon. It’s intended to be an immersive experience that rewards strategy, thought, and experience. You can customize your MekaMon with lots of virtual accessories – such as different weapons – and make minute adjustments to the way it physically moves in order to suit your style of battle, which naturally evolves as you play.
All in all, MekaMon makes a great gift for any robotics enthusiast who wants some good old fashioned robot war without the heavy cost in real world damage.
Although Aibo is currently only available in Japan (an American release may be coming in the near future), it gets an honorable mention because it’s definitely the cutest robot you’re going to find.
Sony released the first version of Aibo the robot dog back in 1999, and though it never sold as many units as they hoped, it developed a very passionate cult following. Owners became so attached to Aibo that funerals were common when Sony cancelled production and stopped supporting Aibo several years later.
Now back with an advanced AI brain, Aibo is more responsive, has more of a personality, and even learns to adjust to its owner’s behavior and preferences the more they interact with each other.
And just take a look at this and then tell us you don’t want to pick one of these up and play with it.
So there you have it: a few of the most entertaining and educational robots available today. This is a rapidly developing field, so these robots are most likely just a taste of what’s to come over the next several years. But for now, these guys are leading the way.
In part 3, we’ll look at some of the most advanced home robots that want to be your go-to assistant.