You might already be familiar with Anki's smartphone-powered remote control cars, but Cozmo is something else entirely. Rather than just being a competitive toy, it's a robotic companion that gets smarter over time. Most important, it's full of personality. Cozmo's diminutive size, expressive LED eyes and boisterous voice (which harks back to Star Wars droids like R2-D2 and Pixar's Wall-E) make it instantly endearing. It moves around with tiny tank treads (a subtle nod to Short Circuit's Johnny 5) and it interacts with the environment using a single articulating arm, which you'll eventually be able to swap out for other appendages. There's also a camera that sits right below its eyes that lets it recognize people and its surroundings.
Setting up Cozmo is fairly straightforward: Place it on its charger, install the app and connect to it using the app. You'll be asked to connect to Cozmo's WiFi network during the setup process, which is something you might have to do several times if you have to install any updates. While the robot itself is kid-friendly, you'll definitely need a patient adult to deal with the initial setup. I also had to type in a lengthy password to connect to Cozmo's WiFi network the first time, but hopefully that's something that'll be simplified by the time it reaches consumers.
Once you're connected, Cozmo "wakes up," leaves his charger and starts to explore his environment like a curious child. From the start, it's clear that Anki paid plenty of attention to the smaller details of Cozmo's behavior. Former Pixar animator Carlos Baena heads up the company's animation team, which uses Maya 3D software to design how the robot moves and interacts. But really, it's the eyes that really shows off Baena's Pixar legacy; with one glance you can tell if Cozmo is happy, angry, sad or in deep concentration.
In many ways, Cozmo feels like a cartoon character who's invaded the real world, which goes a long way toward making it likable. You'll hear lots of impassioned "whoa!" shouts as it moves about and "awww" groans when it encounters obstacles. Pick it up and Cozmo will start to act frustrated like a small child or an overzealous puppy.
At one point, Cozmo fell off a coffee table and said "ow!" -- to the amazement of several Engadget editors. It feels more like a robotic pet than a gadget that's been programmed to be likable. You'll easily lose plenty of time watching it wander around and play with its block toys.
Cozmo is powered entirely by its mobile app, which also plays a soundtrack for your play sessions. The home screen shows off the current Cozmo apps you have installed, a collection of daily goals and the amount of "bits" and "sparks" you've earned through your play sessions. You'll use the bits to unlock more apps and upgrades for Cozmo, while the sparks are used to unlock new tricks. Basically, they're a way to gamify Cozmo's progress from a bumbling child to a slightly more intelligent being.
At first, you're guided to the "Meet Cozmo" app to have the robot learn your face. After typing in your name, you just have to stare at Cozmo for 10 to 15 seconds in a well-lit room. Once it's captured your mug, it also says your name aloud a few times in its adorable robot voice. And yes, it even managed to phonetically say my name (better than many humans, I might add). Afterwards, Cozmo will recognize you and repeat your name whenever you play with it.
Once it knew who I was, I challenged the bot to a game of "Quick Tap." It's pretty much what it sounds like: With one of Cozmo's blocks in front of it, and another in front of me, we raced to see who could tap our blocks the fastest when they lit up with the same color. At first, Cozmo was slow and would get frustrated easily. But after a few rounds, it got faster and didn't mind gloating whenever it won. Anki actually programmed Cozmo to be a bit of a jerk, and in a strange way this makes it even more endearing.
Eventually, I unlocked the ability to play "Keepaway" with Cozmo, which is particularly fun if you enjoy frustrating the bot as much as I do. There's also an explorer mode, allowing you to remotely control Cozmo while looking through its camera on your phone. I was surprised to see that it still had plenty of personality even when I was driving it. If you make it go fast, Cozmo sounds excited, and when you back up, it makes a "beep beep" noise like a large truck.
Cozmo can typically last for 60 to 90 minutes of playtime, depending on what you're doing. But you'll still have to return the robot to its charging cradle to have it "wake up" for future play sessions. I really wished Anki had included a longer USB charging cable, since you'll often want to wake up Cozmo on a tabletop away from outlets. (That's something that could be solved with a cheap USB extension cable, though.)
If anything, Cozmo represents the next step of bringing robots into our homes. It moves beyond pragmatic gadgets like Rooma's vacuum cleaners, and towards a world where we'll have robots that can interact with us and their environments using artificial intelligence. Sure, Cozmo is a long way off from the likes of Wall-E or R2-D2, but it's a start.
While Cozmo scratches a geeky itch for me, it's still a tough sell for most people. Its $180 price is far beyond impulse-buy territory, though that's only a bit more than the $150 Star Wars BB-8 toy that was all the rage last year. I didn't have a chance to test Cozmo out with kids, but I imagine they'd warm up to it pretty quickly too. At the very least, I can confirm that it really freaks cats out. Anki is also opening up Cozmo's SDK, so we'll hopefully soon see plenty more apps built for the wily bot.