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Christmas Gift Guide
Gadgets

Anki Cozmo has the soul of a Disney movie in a $180 robot toy

It's adorable and clever. But Cozmo's biggest accomplishment is its personality.

Now Playing: Watch this: Anki Cozmo is like a Disney character turned into a robot...
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It wakes up and blinks its eyes. It crawls over on its cute caterpillar-tread wheels. The blue LED display looks like it's looking at me. The head lifts, and it pauses, blinks and then seems excited.

"Scott," it says. It knows me. Sort of.

The Anki Cozmo doesn't say anything else, just musical beeps and blips. It's a robot toy available for the holidays, and also a project of sorts. According to Anki, the company making the Cozmo, it's an animated character brought to life in a robot. I'd describe it best as a semi-aware robot with a budding personality. And what's most fascinating to me is I'm falling for its cuteness...and so are my kids.

Unlike some other STEM-friendly robot kits, the Cozmo isn't a thing you build or program (yet). It's more of an AI work in progress and a demonstration of personality. And it's definitely a toy you can play games with. I tried one out for a week. I don't know if I'd run out and buy one, but it has serious charm.

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The Cozmo's face is an expressive little LED screen, like a computer monitor.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Phone-connected robot

The Cozmo has some surprising tricks that seem impossible for a thing its size, and that's because it's using a Wi-Fi connection to a phone to aid its computer vision (object-recognizing camera) and behavior. The phone acts as a processor for the robot, but no internet connection is needed. The Cozmo won't work, however, unless it's paired to a phone. It's a definite phone "app-cessory" toy, more than a true stand-alone robot. Once it's paired, the Cozmo runs for about an hour before needing to recharge and snooze on its cradle.

Three cubes that come included are connected to the Cozmo and covered in readable codes. They blink in multiple colors, too. The Cozmo can find, stack, topple and play with the cubes, and a few games use them. One, a pattern-matching reflex contest, pits people against the Cozmo to tap a block if the colored lights match. At first, I beat it easily. Later on, I realized it was toying with me.

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Unlocking some skills in the Cozmo app while it sleeps in its charging dock.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Another game involves bringing a block up to the Cozmo, teasing it and waiting for it to pounce, then trying to pull the block away before it can tap it.

The Cozmo mainly drives around, avoids objects, looks for its cubes (or, people it recognizes via its camera), and sometimes pings people via the app that it wants to play a game. Every day the Cozmo app has challenges to accomplish, earning points that unlock other tricks and future features.

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It likes lifting its little blocks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Independently minded for the moment

The Cozmo feels like Pixar's Wall-E, or any of the robot creatures Wall-E encountered. It's like a speedy mini-forklift, with BB-8's quirky mood shifts. And the version I tried, with a prerelease build of its app software, had plenty of quirks. Sometimes it disconnected from my phone; other times, it didn't do the block-lifting or toppling tricks I asked it to do.

The future could lie in programming. Anki is opening up the Cozmo to Python programmers via an SDK later this year, and from there the company has plans to offer child-friendly block-based programming, much like Sphero and other robot kits offer. You can't program the Cozmo to do things right now, which sometimes feels frustrating. But you can unlock a remote-control mode, where the phone can drive the Cozmo around and see out of its camera-eyes. In fact, when I tilted the Cozmo's head up at me, I saw it draw a square around my face...and above it, it said "SCOTT."

It has some tricks that make it feel like a perky cat: it can follow motion and pounce on my fingers with its lifter arms, gently. Anki decided on a smaller size for the Cozmo because it can move faster, and also be less dangerous when it makes sudden moves.

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The Cozmo recognizes me, thanks to facial recognition in its built-in camera.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A future of robots?

How far can the Cozmo go towards being a true AI companion? Could I have a conversation with it someday? Right now it's an expensive toy ($180, which is about £150 or AU$235) with aspirations of more. I need to see more features and skills before I'd buy one. But it's the most expressive little robot critter I've ever played with, and that alone could be the accomplishment.

Larger robots, like Softbank's Pepper, are working on similar challenges: how to be friendly versus creepy, "alive" versus mechanical, giving a sensation of personality via animation tricks and tools. The Cozmo feels like another step towards trying to decipher what it means to be a "social" robot.

Would I get my kid a Cozmo? I don't think so, not yet. The Anki Overdrive, last year's successful AI-powered car-racing kit, was a little easier to digest as a toy. The Cozmo is more complicated. I thought it would do more than it currently can. But on the other hand, it's already pretty impressive for the few things it does.

Where to Buy

Anki Cozmo

Visit manufacturer site for details.

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