My kids touch Lightning McQueen's hood, and it rises up on its tires to meet their hands. My son, after a few minutes, says he's figured out how the touch zones work. They start trying to ask Lightning questions; it can't answer. But Sphero's new remote-controlled animated "Cars" replica does nearly everything else.
It better. Sphero's Ultimate Lightning McQueen feels like a robotically powered animated movie collectible, and it's priced like one -- at $299, £299 or AU$499, it's hardly a kid's toy. It's also a lot more expensive than the Sphero BB-8 ($147 at Amazon), the company's last big splash in branded robotics. But it feels more expressive by far. Lightning feels like a miniature piece of animatronics that escaped from Disneyland.
And that's the idea.
Lightning McQueen was designed with frequent meetings between Disney's Pixar animation team, which gave Sphero tips on how to animate Lightning properly to feel movie-real. The car has a lot going on: a trapezoidal screen with moving animated eyes, touch sensors on its body to make it seem alive and an ability to raise and lower on all four wheels. It also has a moving mouth and a speaker to talk with.
I've been playing with Lightning for a week or so using a prerelease version of the iPhone app, which acts as Lightning's remote for driving and playing games. A basic steering remote can make the car race up to 6 miles per hour. Its tires are designed to be extra-ready to spin and drift across the floor, enabling little stunt moves. The car details are movie-prop perfect, and it even has a gas cap charge port that lifts up to accept the red charge cable. The car runs for 40 minutes on a two-hour charge.
Lightning can be triggered to say dozens of movie phrases, or string phrases together into a little scripted dialogue. The car won't automatically navigate, but it'll stay idle and react to touch in a way that feels a lot more alive than Sphero's previous gizmo, BB-8.
It can talk, but it can't listen
One thing Lightning can't do is have a conversation, even though my 4-year-old son really tried. Ultimate Lightning McQueen doesn't have a microphone, and the app can't handle any voice interaction. It seems like a shame, since Lightning's voice snippets and inviting eyes practically beg for a chat.
Last year's Anki Cozmo ($399 at Amazon) was actually interactive. Sphero's Lightning McQueen is more like a Disney-animated RC car. It can watch along and interact at certain scripted points when Disney's original "Cars" movie is playing within range of the phone app, and a racing pit-stop minigame on the phone is accompanied with interactive quips from McQueen. And, as I mentioned above, you can pet it and see its body move and react. But that's it as far as deep interaction goes.
That said, no listening function means no privacy concerns, either.
Signs of robot toys to come
Lightning's newest features are a built-in speaker and a bright, animated windshield-screen for eyes. Sphero says this is the first of five products coming this year from the Boulder-based robotics company, and that future Sphero devices will incorporate ideas like the screen in ways that could get even more interactive.
Much like therobot last year, which was engineered to be charming with the help of animation professionals, Lightning's collaborative creation shows how charm isn't just on the surface. Future robots could aim to learn from how well Lightning can make us smile. It's already doing an impressive imitation of the "Cars" character on my office desk. What animated robots are coming next?