All posts in “toys”

The real Einstein would send Professor Einstein, his robot namesake, into a black hole

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Albert Einstein — the guy who couldn’t tie his shoelace, but also developed the Theory of Relativity — was a both a genius and an oddball. His robot namesake, Professor Einstein, is mostly just an oddball.

Hanson Robotics Founder and CEO David Hanson has long been fascinated by the German-born physicist. He built a life-sized and life-like Einstein head on top of a Hubo robot more than a decade ago. In 2015, he cooked up the idea of a desktop-sized Einstein robot that could teach young people about science.

The result is Professor Einstein, a $299, 15-inch, rubber-faced, mustachioed Einstein look-alike who will make eye contact, tell terrible jokes, and, in concert with a rich Stein-O-Matic app, teach you about a wide array of scientific disciplines.

With his yellow sweater, brown tie, corduroy pants, bushy mustache, and wispy white hair, Professor Einstein does make a good first impression. The bot is unmistakably based on the legendary scientist who died in 1955.

Set-up is relatively straight-forward. Professor Einstein uses dual-proprietary battery packs — one goes in each foot — and there’s a small power switch on his lower back. The Stein-O-Matic app (iOS or Android) leads you through the rest. You create a profile and tell Professor Einstein your name, which he will occasionally use when speaking to you. There’s an Asteroids-like game, “Mag-Neato,” included, which I quite enjoyed playing. One general criticism I have of the app, though, is that it frequently uses almost unreadably small text. I’m sure it looks better on an iPad.

Some of what Hanson accomplished with Professor Einstein is impressive. Einstein raises his eyebrows, blinks, and appears to watch you with his green eyes. His mouth moves in sync with his voice. He can even stick out his plastic tongue, recreating the famous Albert Einstein portrait. The robot can walk, haltingly, and raise his right arm, which automatically extends its index finger.

He points!

He points!

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Hanson Robotics got the Einstein details right.

Hanson Robotics got the Einstein details right.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

However, a lot of Professor Einstein is disappointing. The voice is vaguely elderly and Germanic, but also sort of a buzz-filled mess. At one point the robot launched into a lengthy explanation of the universe. It was interesting, but also painful to listen to. 

Professor Einstein speaks at a raised volume, which means it’s just below a shout. Even worse, there’s no volume control on the robot or in the app.

There are a whole bunch of science topics inside the Stein-O-Matic app. Typically you read the card and then answer quiz questions.

There are a whole bunch of science topics inside the Stein-O-Matic app. Typically you read the card and then answer quiz questions.

Image: Hanson Robotics

I am learning.

I am learning.

Image: Hanson robotics

As a robot, Einstein is also disappointing, with fewer sensors than your average iPhone. Professor Einstein has no accelerometer or gyroscope, so there’s no reaction when you pick him up or knock him down. There is a camera “hidden” in his tie — it, along with two microphones hidden behind the ears and under all that white hair, is used to track you so Einstein appears to be making eye-contact. Sometimes, Einstein seems to be looking at you, but most of the time, he’s just randomly looking around the room. 

On the bright side, Professor Einstein can be pretty smart, as long as he’s connected to the Internet (he lost his connection to our office network every few minutes). You set that up through the app and then, each time you power Professor Einstein up, you have to wait for him to establish a connection. At least he tells you he’s doing so:

“Just one moment while I try to go online.

I will just need a moment to complete the connection.

Let’s get to work.”

You have to listen to this every single time you turn on the robot.

If he’s connected, Professor Einstein can answer a wide variety of questions. Most responses sound like they come straight from Wikipedia, but many are actually from Hanson Robotic’s Cloud AI.

Even though the robot is recording your voice (after “Hey Professor”) and sending it to the cloud, the system uses end-to-end encryption to protect your privacy.

There are dozens of personal questions you can ask Professor Einstein about himself, but you won’t get the answers quickly.

Professor Einstein is most effective when he’s working in concert with the app, which is full of science courses (or cards), quizzes, and games. I did feel like I was learning about science and appreciated that every time I answered questions correctly, Professor Einstein cheered my results. He also commented when I got something wrong.

Sometimes Professor Einstein explains things at length, peppering his commentary with terrible jokes:

“It’s called the Goldilocks Zone because scientists are terrible at naming things, Just ask Uranus.”

Good outfit, Einstein.

Good outfit, Einstein.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

The Professor also has a collection of entertaining pre-built animation routines, which you can access by saying the right phrase (no need for a “Hey Professor”). They include sticking out his tongue, dancing, and giving you a big, creepy smile. I had trouble making many of these work, partly because the included Quick Start manual mangled some of the commands. For example, in the manual it says, “Stick out your tongue,” but the robot only responds to “Stick your tongue out.”

Interaction with Professor Einstein can be painfully slow, mostly because the bot is sending queries out to the cloud.

Here’s how one interaction went: 

I said, “Hey Professor,”

And then I waited.

A few seconds later he replied, “Yes, that’s me.”

Then I asked him to tell me a joke.

He replied, “One moment.”

And I waited.

Then he replied, “Here’s a good one.”

I’d tell you the joke, but the the speech is so poor that I didn’t even catch all of it.

Professor Einstein gets points for an on-point Albert Einstein outfit, a life-like, expressive face, and an excellent learning app, but I would not pay $299 for a robot that responds only 70% of the time and talks (too loudly) like it swallowed a fistful of bees.

Professor Einstein

The Good

Animated, life-like face Rich, deep and fun science education app

The Bad

Slow Inconsistent operation No volume control Can’t maintain network connection

The Bottom Line

Relatively speaking, this is not one of the better toy robots we’ve tested.

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Kids app maker Toca Boca debuts its first consumer product collection at Target


Toca Boca, a hugely popular kids’ app maker, has grown to over 170 million downloads across its line of 38 apps, which 13 million children use every month. Now, the company is transitioning its brand beyond the digital space to become a maker of real-world products, as well. In an exclusive deal with Target, announced today, Toca Boca will launch its own collection of apparel, accessories, sleepwear, backpacks, lunch bags, bedding and activity books, aimed at kids ages 5 to 9.

The collection will feature Toca Boca’s iconic characters and style, and will adhere to the same design principles that has made its apps – which the company refers to as “digital toys” – so well-liked.

If you’re a parent, it’s nearly impossible to miss out on the Toca Boca craze. The Stockholm-based app maker dominates today’s App Store, thanks to its clever and thoughtfully designed suite of apps. To give you an idea of its market traction, the company currently has 23 percent market share among the paid kid apps on the App Store – that’s a huge chunk of the pie.

The U.S., in particular, is a key market for Toca Boca, accounting for nearly a third of its total user base across both Android and iOS.

What makes Toca Boca so appealing to children is that the apps are designed to inspire more open-ended play. Unlike most games, there are levels to beat or scores to top; instead, Toca Boca lets kids just have fun with apps – whether that’s cutting and styling characters’ hair, hosting a tea party, putting together a band and making music, creating robots, or even designing or playing within virtual worlds, as with its Toca Life series (e.g. Toca Life: City, Toca Life: Farm, etc.), Toca Nature, and more.

The company grew out of the 200-year-old Swedish publishing firm Bonnier, where it had operated like a startup. It was sold in 2016 to children’s entertainment company Spin Master, which produces kids TV “Paw Patrol” and others, and makes a number of toys, like the Flutterbye Fairies and Kinetic Sand, for example.

Toca Boca says it already had plans to expand beyond digital before Spin Master acquired it, but its new parent has been a helpful partner on this initiative.

“Toca Boca’s vision is to be a category-independent brand, to be a beacon in the world for kids. The move into physical products and licensing began nearly two years ago, before the acquisition, and marks a major milestone toward that goal,” explains Toca Boca COO, Caroline Ingeborn.

“However, working with Spin Master since the acquisition has been great as we have very complementary skill sets. They’ve been able to support us and offer a helpful perspective and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them in the future,” she says.

The debut collection at Target will include 38 individual SKUs, which will launch this month ahead of the back-to-school shopping season on both target.com and in retail stores. The clothing will be available in sizes 4 to 16, and will be available for both boys and girls – as the apps themselves have a cross-gender appeal. In addition, the collection will be merchandized between the boys’ and girls’ aisles in many Target stores, the company also notes.

Like its apps, the products follow the same design principles – clean lines, bright color palettes, and a bit of quirkiness – notes Toca Boca.

“The collection features some of kids’ favorite elements from Toca Life in a way we hope empowers kids and helps them express who they are,” notes Ingeborn. “We tried to inject the fun details we are known for in digital toys into everyday items — making playthings out of everything,” she adds.

The products, at a glance, are obviously from Toca Boca – and it’s likely kids who see them in Target’s aisles will immediately make the connection.

While this is the first time Toca Boca will have its own consumer products, the company’s subsidiary Sago Mini, aimed the  preschool set, already has a line of books, plush toys, figurines, playsets, bedding, t-shirts, books, and more, which are sold online today. Its product line, first launched with toys in 2015, takes a different approach, however. Its primary focus is toys and it designs everything in-house.

Toca Boca, meanwhile, worked with licensees to create its debut line, including FABNY, The Foundery, Franco Manufacturing and Random House Children’s Books. The decision allowed it to bring its products to market more quickly, says Ingeborn. And its initial collection does not include toys.

What’s interesting about Toca Boca’s consumer product launch, too, is that it’s tying the physical goods to the apps in a unique way. Its Toca Life: City app is going free for the first time, and is being updated with a new feature and location where kids can unlock in-app gifts using a free code found inside Target’s stores.

The unlocked content will be some of the same items Toca Boca is selling at Target – effectively turning the app into a promotional mechanism for the real-world products.

Toca Boca’s collection hits Target on July 17.

Time 4 Machine promises to bring us back to an age of metal and clockwork


The tinging of tiny hammers from the heart of Dwarf Mountains may now be lost to the mists of time but you, my friend, can still make magically complex metallic contrivances in the comfort of your own barrow/home. I point to Time 4 Machine, a selection of metal models made the creator of the wooden uGears, Denis Okhrimenko.

The models range from a table hockey set with moving players to a working cabriolet with gearbox, drive train, and spring-powered engine. You put these models together yourself and each one costs between $50 and $95. The series even includes an old-timey tank that looks like a British Mark V and a Mysterious Clock that keeps time.

Okhrimenko has shipped models before and these are just some of his latest creations. The kits are reminiscent of stuff my father used to put together as a kid and they come with all the pieces and assembly instructions.

“I moved from wooden 3D puzzles to metal mechanical models, and created something totally new,” said Okhrimenko. These things aren’t high-tech on the surface but the process of creating so many metal parts and fitting them together is something even those Dwarven metal mongers could never imagine.

Sphero’s new toy is a chatty Spider-Man

Sphero continues its partnership with Disney today, with the launch of a new toy based on the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. But where BB-8 and Lightning McQueen could move around the room, Spider-Man is more stationary — his real power involves holding conversations.

The simplest thing this Spider-Man can do is tell jokes — he seems to have an infinite simply of eye-rollers. If you just ask him to chat, he’ll start a conversation about random topics like school or dating. And as Sphero co-founder and Chief Software Architect Adam Wilson put it, he’s also “a storyteller,” describing his adventures to kids and asking them to participate in key moments.

You can see a few of my interactions with Spider-Man in the video above. Users are encouraged to try out different prompts and discover new modes of interaction — though there were plenty of times where Spider-Man would answer a different question from the one I asked, or he would just sit there silently.

The toy includes expressive LCD eyes, a microphone, a speaker and an accelerometer — so he’ll offer enthusiastic commentary if you pick him up and pretend to fight with him. There’s even an infrared sensor, allowing Spider-Man to go into “guard mode,” warning off any intruders who enter his owner’s bedroom.

Sphero's Spider-Man

Aside from using third-party speech recognition technology, Wilson said Spider-Man’s conversational engine was built “from scratch” — in essence, he’s “a full Android device” inside a superhero-shaped toy. (While your main interactions will be through voice, you’ll also need either an iOS or an Android app to control him.)

Wilson also emphasized the importance of privacy and security. He said Spider-Man is only listening when the spider on his chest lights up, and the user’s voice is never stored or shared. (The security measures are certified by AppliedTrust.)

It’s worth noting that while Spider-Man’s launch is timed to just a few weeks before the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming on July 7, he isn’t supposed to represent the movie version of the character, and he’s not voiced by Homecoming actor Tom Holland. (The fact that Homecoming will be distributed by Sony Pictures, not Disney, may have something to do with the toy’s lack of movie ties.) Still, Wilson said this Spider-Man comes with more than “100 comic books worth of content” and will also offer “tons of Easter Eggs.”

As for price, the toy costs $149.99.

This Spider-Man does whatever a spider-companion can do

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What if your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man could spend less time out fighting crime and more time at home with you?

That’s the concept behind Sphero’s latest Disney/Marvel Universe-inspired toy, the Spider-Man Interactive App-enabled Superhero. It’s a tabletop companion that responds to your voice, tells stories, virtually joins you on missions, and can watch over your room.

Even though he’s a superhero, this Spider-Man has a decidedly Funko-like figure (giant head, squat physique) and a rubberized body. Its stumpy arms are poseable, but he’s otherwise immobile. It is rechargeable so you can take it out on your own little Spider-Man-inspired adventures.

The only thing that moves on this Spider-Man are his arms.

The only thing that moves on this Spider-Man are his arms.

Image: Lance Ulanoff/mashable

Inside, though, is an Android-based system, motion sensors, a speaker just below his Spider-Man logo button, microphones, and expressive LCD-based Spidey eyes.

The toy companion’s launch is timed to coincide with the release of the new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie franchise reboot. Aside from the eyes and web-slinger gear on its wrist, though, the toy is wearing a classic Spider-Man costume.

Designed for a night table or desktop (he can be used as an alarm clock), Sphero’s Spider-Man will spend most of its existence on its included charging base, waiting for you to press the Spider-Man logo on its chest. Once you do that, the logo lights up and microphones listen for key words and phrases, like “What’s the crime report?” “Let’s fight some bad guys,” “Make me laugh,” and “Tell me a story.” And Spider-Man has many tales to tell. Sphero packed it with over 100 comic books’ worth of stories and adventures, and Spider-Man keeps track of what he’s told you and where in the action you left off. Sphero representatives told me the toy won’t be repeating itself.

The interactive Spider-Man comes with this charging base.

The interactive Spider-Man comes with this charging base.

Image: lance Ulanoff/mashable

There’s also an associated app that lets you create your own superhero name and abilities and helps you keep track of which bad guys you’ve fought.

Inside the app, you choose your name from a two-part word wheel, where you make up combos like “Stealth Wolf” or “Ultimate Shark.” You get the same two-word choice system for your super power. During setup, I chose the name “Colossal King” and “Super Fists” as my super power. You can update your alias and powers at any time.

Don't worry about Interactive Spider-Man using your child's real name. It lets her pick a superhero alias.

Don’t worry about Interactive Spider-Man using your child’s real name. It lets her pick a superhero alias.

Image: Sphero

And you get to add a crazy super power.

And you get to add a crazy super power.

Image: Sphero

When I connected the app to Spider-Man (you just hold the phone near Spider-Man), he immediately used my name and asked me if I was royal by birth. He also noted my super power and said he wondered why my hands were big and red. 

Put simply, this is a toy with intelligence.

You can pick it up and move it around and, because of the accelerometer, it will react. I turned Interactive Spider-Man upside down and it said. “Unhand me, you fiend,” and when I shook it, he said “Shake your super hero booty.” 

Spider-Man's charging port is built into his foot.

Spider-Man’s charging port is built into his foot.

Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

The Interactive Spider-Man never had trouble hearing me, even when I spoke softly, and I never had difficulty hearing or understanding the sound coming out of the single speaker in his belly. Volume is controlled via the app.

Spider-Man’s youthful voice is always accompanied by eye animations that make it look like he’s happy, sad, or amused.

There’s no camera, but Spider-Man can use its infrared motion sensor to detect movement, In sentry mode, which you activate by double-pressing the logo button and saying “Activate guard mode,” Spider-Man says things like, “Freeze, knucklehead, you’re not allowed in here.” You turn off this mode by telling Spider-Man to “Stand down.”

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All this interaction and engagement might make you nervous, but Sphero spent a lot of time thinking about privacy. That’s why there isn’t a camera and Spider-Man isn’t always listening. You must press the Spider-Man logo button to turn on the microphone, and the logo is always lit when the toy is listening.

Sphero’s interactive Spider-Man is Wi-Fi connected, but only for content updates. Whatever you tell it is encrypted and, as soon as Spider-Man has completed the associated voice task, the data is, according to Sphero, discarded.

Image: LANCE ULANOFF/MASHABLE

Spider-Man is also full of hidden Easter eggs. Every time you push its button, Spider-Man will respond, but if you keep pressing, he may threaten to reset. He even appears to do so, but it’s a ruse. Not sure if kids will find that entertaining or frustrating. I suggest shaking him a lot to see what happens.

In general, though, this could be the perfect companion for a Spider-Man-obsessed 8 year-old (or older) who wants wants to live the Spidey lifestyle with all the entertainment and activity value, but none of the real-world risks.

Sphero’s Interactive Spider-Man goes on sale Thursday for $149.

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