Romotive’s iPhone on Wheels Gets Kids Riled Up About Robotics

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playing hide-and-seek and chasing the real pets. But it makes for strange conversation, since the caller has to peer up at everything, and the people around Romo have to peer down. For a more comfortable telepresence experience, a roaming camera and screen need to be much higher, they way they are on (far more costly) robots from companies like Suitable Technologies or Double Robotics. You can put Romo on a tabletop, but it’s inadvisable—the base moves so fast it would be easy to drive it right over the edge.

Also, in my tests, I found that calls placed through Romo Control often didn’t connect properly—either there was no video, or the controls weren’t active. Romotive uses Tokbox, the face-to-face Internet video provider, as the underlying platform for this feature, so it’s possible that the problems I was having were traceable to Tokbox’s network, rather than the Romo software. Either way, I feel like Romo’s two-way video feature is a novelty at this point, rather than a reliable telecommunications tool. It’s definitely not what I’d call Grandma-ready. With more work, though, it could be.

2. Training

This side of Romo is more fleshed out. The conceit here—explained in a series of animated videos in the Romo app—is that Romo is an alien who’s traveled to Earth, and needs your help training for the Robot Space Race. This involves completing a series of missions that familiarize the user with Romo’s capabilities. According to Romotive, the missions are also “designed to teach you concepts in programming and robotics without a textbook or instruction manual.”

That’s accomplished using a simple visual interface that lets you assemble a list of instructions for Romo. In the first mission, for example, you learn how to make the device drive a specific distance forward or backward, at a specific speed, and how to pause and turn. Later, you learn how to control Romo’s facial expressions, how to train it to recognize colorful objects (the better to chase them around), how to make it follow a line on the floor, and so forth.

Once you’ve unlocked all the missions, there’s a “Lab” area where you can string together any sequence of actions. For example, you could make Romo zoom forward 5 meters at 100 percent speed, turn 90 degrees to the right, make an angry face and a farting noise, take a picture, and speed back to his original spot.

You can see the potential for mischief here. Kieran, the 6-year-old, took to the system immediately; he seemed to like choosing different faces and noises the most.

But strictly speaking, he wasn’t learning programming skills. I hope he picked up the idea that robots are programmable, which could pique his interest in further STEM activities and careers. But Romo’s interface isn’t in the same category with true visual programming languages such as Scratch. The system doesn’t allow for much precision, and editing the command sequences is tedious. Playing with it for more than a few minutes makes me yearn for an actual editing interface.

That, of course, is exactly what the company is trying to avoid. In the video below, Romotive roboticist Adam Setapen says the goal was “to cut out the learning curve by making an educational experience that’s so much more personal and fun for a child than sitting in front of a computer with a text editor.”

And I get that. But there’s only so far you can go without learning some actual code. And learning how to code is, in turn, the avenue to a more systematic way of thinking about just about everything, not to mention some of the hottest careers on the planet.

I’d say the Space Race game, in its current form, is at best an enticing gateway to more formal types of programming. The key is to make sure that kids who fall in love with Romo get a chance to move on to introductory computer science training.

Let me be clear: Romo is very cool, and for $150, you are not going to find a more versatile or entertaining home robot. I spent more than two weeks visiting my brother and his family in Alaska over the holidays, and not a day went by when Lucy and Kieran didn’t ask me if they could play with Romo. Technically it’s designed for kids aged 8 and up, meaning they’re a bit young for it, but even so, it was clearly a hit, and I’d love to take it back to Alaska next winter. Romotive keeps upgrading the Romo app, so by then we’d probably have whole new training missions to explore—and new ways to keep Lucy screaming.


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