bots_alive: Mobile tech giving toys a mind of their own

Image: Clique
Alex Stockwell

Lifelike robotic behavior via your smartphone’s camera? What’s not to love?

Robots of all different forms and functions featured quite heavily at the latest CES in Las Vegas. There were ideas ranging from educational toys. such as the LEGO Boost, to robotic carry bags and even one that cleans your BBQ grill.

Supposedly, the difficulty with bringing a new idea to market is that you need to be able to make something that not is only autonomous, but also has bags of personality to boot, and of course, it helps if it’s not crazy expensive. The small, creative team of roboticists behind Austin TX-based bots_alive may have done just that, managing to make robot toys that are both interesting and affordable.

Nearing the end of an already hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, these little critters (and accompanying app) utilize your phone’s camera capabilities to learn, adapt and even compete with one another to complete simple, user-created, path-finding exercises.

How bots_alive robots work

Bots_alive is essentially a replacement brain for the Hexbug Spider robot toy that has been around for some time. The kit replaces the existing (albeit limited) infrared (IR) controller with an IR blaster connected to your smartphone, which is then paired with computer vision to locate fiducial markers (not unlike a basic QR code) on the robot’s head and its accompanying environment blocks.

This overrides the Hexbug’s existing brain, and, as long as your phone’s camera can see the ‘life-giving’ decals, it has full control of the robot’s movements. Basically, bots_alive is sort of like the robotic equivalent of that horrific zombie fungus that takes over the minds of ants – but in a nice way.

Included in the basic package is the necessary decal for the robot, an IR blaster, 5 vision blocks for path building (1 target and 4 obstacles) and the accompanying app. The kits starts at the reasonable price of $35 for the smartphone kit alone, but take note, if you don’t already own a Hexbug Spider it costs a total of $60 to get one included.

What makes bots_alive so interesting is that their behavior (according to some initial response) feels uniquely organic due to their unpredictability. It may have a clear A-to-B path to accomplish, but it will often take very different paths.

Check out this CNET video to see them in action:

The team and their philosophy

The minds behind bots_alive in Austin, TX are led by Dr. Bradley Knox, who spent his academic career researching A.I and human-robot interaction.

In conversation with IEEE Spectrum at CES, Dr. Knox shared his philosophy for creating “robots that we ourselves want to interact with”, stating in essence that, up until this point and his opinion, socially-interactive robotics have always been a touch disappointing. The key for the team has been about simplifying the experience, and creating something both expressive and consistently entertaining.

Bots_alive aren’t going to change your life with their usefulness, but they are an inexpensive way to experience some entertaining little robot critters.

Additionally, the potential to see more inventive, mobile-led robot interaction is reason enough to get excited.

Do no evil?

How about we sub-title this, “How to scare the wits out of your kid sister”?

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