The robots are coming!
I’ve seen them up close.
They’ve overrun my home and it’s a safe bet they’ll soon overrun yours, too—especially if you have children between the ages of 8 and 12.
I’m talking about toy robots, of course, which are destined to be a hot holiday gift this season. A year ago people were raving about Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Sphero’s BB-8 (modeled after the heroic droid in "Star Wars: the Force Awakens").
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This year they’re buzzing about WowWee’s CHiP, Spin Master’s Zoomer Chimp, and Anki’s Cosmo.
Unlike the plastic figurines of old, outfitted with blinking lights and cheesy sound effects, these toys employ some of the very same technology you'll find in real robots. Powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, they use mini sensors, voice commands, and artificial intelligence to delight children. To some degree, the toys are capable of learning and responding to social and environmental cues.
Which robot is best for your kid? Well, to help you make a more informed decision, we’ve evaluated all five toys in our labs.
In Riund 1, Dash ($150) defeated BB-8 ($150) to earn our endorsement. This time around, Dash will be going head-to-head with WowWee’s CHiP ($200).
The Champ: Dash, $150
In the Round 1, Dash and BB-8 were pretty evenly matched. Both toys cost $150. Both are controlled by mobile phone apps downloaded to a smartphone or tablet. And both respond to voice commands.
BB-8 has a slight edge in popular appeal because of its ties to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Just like the on-screen version, it has a head that appears to defy gravity—thanks to the wonder of magnets—riding atop a body that rolls like a tennis ball.
But Dash counters that bit of wizardry with an array of cutting-edge technology—LED lights, mini microphones, infrared sensors and transmitters—that helps the toy effectively recognize your child’s voice and maneuver around the room, avoiding obstacles.
In the end, the deciding factor was Dash’s strength as an educational toy. The product’s five free apps feature challenges that coax children into learning the fundamentals of computer coding, increasing in complexity as they age.
The Contender: CHiP, $200
Once again, Dash is competing against a toy that tugs at the heartstrings. CHiP is a robotic dog—“about the size of a small Chihuahua,” says Consumer Reports resident robot tester, Emilio Gonzalez. It barks, sits on command, and plays fetch with a battery-powered SmartBall.
It retreats on its own to a SmartBed when it’s low on power to recharge its lithium-ion battery (provided the SmartBed is within a distance of 3 meters).
And CHiP instantly recognizes its owner—so long as that owner has the toy SmartBand strapped to a wrist. (Note: The SmartBall, SmartBed, and SmartBand are included in CHiP’s $200 price.)
“Technologically, this robot is pretty amazing,” Gonzalez says. CHiP’s head and snout are outfitted with capacitive touch sensors. Pat the top of its head when CHiP is lying down and CHiP will stand up. Pick CHiP up and it will recognize the gesture, using a built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to detect the change in orientation.
In fact, if you leave it unattended, CHiP is capable of roaming your home like a real pet.
It moves pretty fast, too, which means it’s capable of tailing your child from one room to the next.
“For the record,” Gonzalez says, “my favorite command is when CHiP dances to a preset tune. Too bad I couldn’t change that tune so I could dance along, too.”
Like BB-8 and Dash, CHiP can be controlled with a free mobile app. But if you don’t feel like handing your phone or tablet to your child, he or she can simply control the robot dog with the SmartBand.
It has five buttons, and each one performs two commands depending on whether you tap it or hold it down. Using the “like” button, you can even reward certain responses from CHiP, gradually teaching the toy to behave in the manner you like.
And that’s the point. The more CHiP learns about your child, the more it mimics a real dog, responding in ways aimed to please.
It turns its ears and head, alters the color of its eyes, zips forward, backward, and side to side, whimpers, growls, and strives to lure you into engaging in some form of play. Spin Master calls this “situational awareness.”
And the Winner Is . . .
“I still prefer the Dash,” Gonzalez says. “But CHiP is a close second.”
For all of its tricks, the dog requires a level of effort and persistence to uncover and master them. You have to go to the manufacturer’s website, for example, to download the owner’s manual. And even with the instructions in hand, Gonzalez found that the voice, touch, and movement commands did not always work as intended. He spent a lot of time watching online videos about the toy for pointers.
“The owner is the one in need of training,” he says.
One cool feature, for example, allows you to use CHiP instead of an alarm clock, waking to the sound of his barks and silencing them with a gentle pat on the head. But Gonzalez—a mechanical engineer—couldn’t figure out how to activate that feature.
So that’s the big question: To what lengths will your child go to uncover CHiP’s myriad offerings? Because if he or she isn’t naturally inquisitive and creative with free playtime, you may be spending $200 on a sophisticated robot that sits at the bottom of the toy box.
Go to our website in the weeks ahead to see how Dash stacks up against Spin Master's Zoomer Chimp and Anki's Cosmo.
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