Imagine playing with a "smart" ball that cowers and cries
with fear when it rolls into a dark area. Or a baby doll that looks
at you and gurgles happily when you rock it, and burps after it
drinks from a bottle.
These toys and others still are a couple of years down the
road. But they represent a wave of new toys with the ability to
interact with the person playing with them. They also represent the
new breed of robots.
They're not clunky robots like "Rosie" of the Jetsons cartoon
show or R2D2 of the "Star Wars" movies. The robot baby looks and
acts uncannily like a real child.
"We feel like we made a baby rather than an interactive baby
doll," said Colin Angle, chief executive officer and co-founder of
IS Robotics Inc. (ISR) in Somerville, Mass., which created the doll
and ball. "The difference is that you can turn this baby off when
The baby doll has animatronic areas in its face that allow
its mouth to open, its cheeks to draw tight when it cries, and its
eyes to squint. With sensors, the baby doll can understand 12
different actions including patty-cake, a hug, a bottle in its
mouth, a tickle, and being turned upside down. It can react by
looking at its playmate, crying, laughing, and sucking loudly on a
bottle. The doll runs on AA batteries.
The toys still are experimental. Mr. Angle says a major US
toy manufacturer is looking into commercializing them some time in
2000 or 2001. The balls could have different attitudes or
personalities, and would cost about $20. A fully featured doll
might sell for $250, but a doll with fewer features could sell for
as little as $50.
Angle and his colleagues used artificial-intelligence
technology devised at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
Artificial Intelligence Lab to make toys that know, intuitively,
how people should play with them. The toys then throw the player
curves to make play more interesting. For example, the ball can
round a corner or hide under a table.
"It's a ball with an attitude," says Angle, an MIT graduate.
He was inspired by the run-away success of Tamagotchi, the
virtual pet on a key chain that its owner must care for, or it
"dies." "When I saw the success of that, I built the ball," Angle
Angle sees toys as a way to popularize robots, which
generally are considered hulking, awkward gizmos for industry. To
date, most of ISR's business has been with US government
contractors. The company makes experimental robots to find and help
disarm land mines. Those can work in various harsh environments,
including under water and on a sandy beach. It also is making a
robot for an oil company that will help maintain oil wells. …