Earning its status as the ‘it’ toy of 2004, Wow Wee’s Robosapien has generated sales of more than 1.5 million units since launching last fall. But you have to wonder about the mind that created this whistling, belching, two-foot-tall robot. Slightly mad genius? Frustrated scientist? Or perhaps just a big toy buff? It turns out Mark Tilden, the toy’s inventor, is a bit of all three.
Tilden says he was born interested in robots, and as an adult did stints as a NASA robotics engineer and a researcher at the U.S. military’s Los Alamos National Laboratories. But when he hit upon the system of robotics that’s now the underpinning of Robosapien, NASA and other scientific institutes wouldn’t help him develop a prototype. Enter the toy industry.
It took a lot of work to produce an affordable, mass-market version of the robot, and Tilden says the path was strewn with roadblocks, including the bankruptcy of one of Robosapien’s early financiers and an 11-day working-around-the-clock marathon (Tilden wore the same clothes for the duration) to program Robo’s personality. But a particularly memorable moment for Tilden came when an early prototype caught fire during a big presentation at Toy Fair 2002, making a ‘significant’ impression on the buyers in attendance.
What’s most interesting about Tilden’s creation – and the new versions of Robosapien that are in the works – is that he designed it to be hacked into, creating the ultimate in open-ended play. ‘Building robots is easy,’ says Tilden. ‘Building roboticists is hard; and frankly, I could use the help.’ The toy’s wiring is all accessible and neatly labeled, and Tilden is delighted by the ways kids and adults have been modifying his robots worldwide.
Tilden won’t say what his exclusive relationship with Wow Wee will lead to beyond fall 2005, but later this year, the next-gen Robosapien will hit shelves. The V2 (US$229) is 10 inches taller than its predecessor and has a color vision system that lets it recognize objects and skin tones; so it can wave or reach out and shake your hand when it sees you. The upgraded model also has technology that allows it to control Robosapien V1 and new companions Roboraptor (US$119) and Robopet (US$89).
As exciting as it is to see his toy hit paydirt, Tilden is thinking about heading back to the serious scientific world of robotics. ‘We’ll soon need some real-world, human-form intelligence tools,’ he says. ‘Making robots walk, talk, see and listen, we can do. Making them have real feelings, we can’t. But people will expect that soon, and it’s going to take some research.’
As for the next generation of robotics, Tilden sees applications for shopping, dating, traveling and adventure-gaming in the pipeline. ‘Current communication technology is designed to bring the world to you, but robotics will bring you to the world – cheaply, and at the speed of thought.’