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