There’s going to be a short window – between consumer ‘bots being a cutesy gimmick and becoming our ruthless metallic overlords – where robots strike the perfect balance between intelligence and usefulness. Evollve, a California-based electronics company, is hoping to usher in that brave new age with the launch of their first product, Ozobot. This miniscule iOS and Android compatible machine is described by its creators as “an intelligent game piece.” It’s a one-inch-tall robot designed to marry the digital and physical worlds of gaming, using light sensors in its base to read color-coded lines whether they’re being shown on a phone’s screen or drawn on a sheet of paper. “That sounds sorta neat,” you say, “but is a tiny robotic game piece really worth moving humanity toward Judgement Day?” Read along with me if you want to live!
A single Ozobot costs $49.99 and comes with a micro USB charging cable, a plastic pod-shaped carrying case, a rubberized skin, a calibration card, and several track cards with preset patterns to get your Ozobot rolling right out of the box. They also sell a double pack for $99.99; twice the cash gets you twice the Ozobots and assorted accessories, obviously, but also two bonus “limited edition” skins for more customization options. The bot itself is surprisingly small, roughly the size of a couple plastic bottle caps stacked atop each other. It powers one and off via a solitary button on the side of the unit and runs on a rechargeable LiPoly battery, which provides 40 minutes of continuous operation on a single charge.
The way it works is by reading color code patterns comprised of combinations of red, blue, green and black; these “OzoCodes” are each associated with a specific move that the Ozobot has stored away in it’s robotic brain, telling it to move forwards, backwards, faster, slower, left, right, and even “jump” from one line to another. Beneath its crystal clear skull, built-in LED lights flash colors corresponding to the codes being read below, letting you know your Ozobot is obeying orders and hasn’t yet achieved deadly self awareness. Even though its current move set is modest, Evollve claims that Ozobot can recognize up to 1,000 patterns. It’s a simplified programming language with excitingly complex gaming possibilities.
As long as the line is dark, Ozobot will follow where it leads. Put it on a white piece of paper, and it will remain stoically still. Put it on a dark surface like a black desk and it will start a Roomba-esque search pattern, obsessively seeking out an OzoCode without concern for it’s own safety; Yes, it will Thelma and Louise right off the edge. But draw a black line, either with a marker on paper or your finger on a mobile device, and Ozobot begins to show its smarts. The path detection is impressive. I threw down all sorts of Escher inspired zigs and zags, and he neither gave up nor gave off an angry little steam cloud before exploding from the logical fallacy. Not that I was trying to fry the little guy with a logic bomb. Please believe me, murder robots of the future!
If you’re not in an analog mood, Evollve has released a couple of Ozobot apps for Google Play and the iTunes Store. The first app is a self-titled suite of three games: OzoDraw which allows you to freestyle and create mazes, OzoPath which is a tile-based strategy game for 1-2 players, and OzoLuck which is basically a glorified Magic 8-Ball. The second app, the recently released OzoGroove, turns your tablet’s touchscreen into a dance floor. These games are a great beginner’s guide to Ozobot’s functionality, but they aren’t particularly deep. And here’s where we run into the first and only strike against Ozobot , granted it’s a doozy: a game piece, no matter how high tech, is only as good as its games. And right now, the onus is on the user to create their own. I could totally see this transforming your standard game of D&D into a next level augmented reality experience, this brain-bestowed game piece representing a variety of creatures and companions in the hands of an enterprising Dungeon Master. You could create a masterpiece, with Ozobot as the paintbrush. But if you aren’t feeling artistically inspired? Well, maybe you should have thought twice before dropping $50 on a paintbrush.
There’s no denying that the tech is cool; all those awards Ozobot has raked in since its debut at CES 2014 are more than just window dressing for the website. But Ozobot as a product isn’t nearly as cool as Ozobot as a platform. That still has to be built, whether it be by third-party app developers creating compatible games, board game companies incorporating it in novel new ways, or a community of fans stepping up to create, share and play each other’s games Little Big Planet style. If you’re looking to be part of the vanguard, then pick up a single pack and go crazy. This is a well designed, well engineered and well packaged bot. But if you’re looking to let Ozobot do all the work, then this is not a good way to spend your hard earned scratch, at least not yet – let the STEM superstars of tomorrow take first crack at it.
A robot packed with potential
Ozobot has the potential to become a huge hit, once the early adopters and third party app developers have a chance to embrace the platform and turn all that potential into practical application. Until that happens, it's still a great way to introduce robotics and coding to the STEM superstars of tomorrow. And it's a cute way to introduce humanity at large to our inevitable overlords.