Sony has introduced a new consumer robotic toy: Toio, a ‘toy platform’ consisting of little robotic cubes on wheels. It’s much cuter and way more fun looking than it sounds, and could be just clever enough to keep kids interested for more than five minutes (a common problem with a lot of robotic toys).
We don’t have a lot of technical details on how the Toio cubes work, but they appear to have a pair of wheels at the bottom, some number of basic sensors, and bumps on top that are compatible with Legos. The robots are each approximately 32x32x19.2mm.
They communicate via Bluetooth to a video game-type console where you insert a cartridge, which tells the robots how to behave. There are also motion-sensing rings that act as controllers and let you make the robots drive and spin around.
Each Toio robot cube has a small lithium-ion battery that lets it drive for about two hours. To recharge the robots, you place them on the console, which has a speaker, LCD display, cartridge slot, and ports to connect the controller rings.
But where things really get interesting is when you modify the cubes with basic crafting materials like paper and tape:
Toio kits come with special mats, so we’re assuming that a lot of the neat tricks you see in these videos are made possible by optical pattern localization: This method allows robots to find their position by using a downward facing camera and looking at patterns underneath them. The robots then communicate with a centralized controller to simulate interactive behavior with one another.
Robotic toy startup Anki may have been the first company to really make use of this technique, but it’s no longer unique to them. (Warehouse robotics company Kiva Systems, acquired by Amazon, also used cameras to look at bar-coded stickers on the ground for localization.) The downside is that the functionality of the Toios are probably more limited when they are off of the mats, though it seems that you can use special cards to help them navigate:
That all looks like fun, for sure, but one thing to note is that this is not a regular, ‘official’ Sony product. The company is offering Toio through its crowdfunding platform, called First Flight, designed to incubate product ideas from Sony employees. The Toio team has engineers and designers from Sony headquarters as well as the Sony Computer Science Laboratory, and company partners include Bandai, Lego, and Sony Music. The Toio website currently lists three different kits available for pre-order, each going for around 30,000 yen, or about $275.
Another thing to note is that, as with video game consoles, you’ll probably have to buy new cartridges from Sony if you want new behaviors for your Toios, and it’s unclear if they will be able to run code created using any of the visual programming languages that are now popular among kids. If they turned out not to be programmable, the robots might not appeal to hobbyists and educators who value more open and ‘hackable’ platforms.
Toio is certainly a clever little thing, and we’ll see how things shake out in December, when the kits should start shipping.