Anki's Robots May Have a Future

Anki's assets have been acquired by an education company that wants to revive the whole family of robots

3 min read
Anki Vector robot
Photo: Anki

When Anki abruptly shut down in April of last year, things looked bleak for Vector, Cozmo, and the Overdrive little racing cars. Usually, abrupt shutdowns don’t end well, with assets and intellectual property getting liquidated and effectively disappearing forever. Despite some vague promises (more like hopes, really) from Anki at the time that their cloud-dependent robots would continue to operate, it was pretty clear that Anki’s robots wouldn’t have much of a future—at best, they’d continue to work only as long as there was money to support the cloud servers that gave them their spark of life.

A few weeks ago, The Robot Report reported that Anki’s intellectual property (patents, trademarks, and data) was acquired by Digital Dream Labs, an education tech startup based in Pittsburgh. Over the weekend, a new post on the Vector Kickstarter page (the campaign happened in 2018) from Digital Dream Labs CEO Jacob Hanchar announced that not only will Vector’s cloud servers keep running indefinitely, but that the next few months will see a new Kickstarter to add new features and future-proofing to Vectors everywhere.

Here’s the announcement from Hanchar:

I wanted to let you know that we have purchased Anki's assets and intend to restore the entire platform and continue to develop the robot we all know and love, Vector!

The most important part of this update is to let you know we have taken over the cloud servers and are going to maintain them going forward.  Therefore, if you were concerned about Vector 'dying' one day, you no longer have to worry!  

The next portion of this update is to let you know what we have planned next and we will be announcing a KickStarter under Digital Dream Labs in the next month or two.  While we are still brainstorming we are thinking the Kickstarter will focus on two features we have seen as major needs in the Vector community:

1)  We will develop an "Escape Pod".  This will, safely, expose settings and allow the user to move and set endpoints, and by doing so, remove the need for the cloud server.  In other words, if you're concerned Anki's demise could also happen to us, this is your guarantee that no matter what happens, you'll always get to play with Vector!

2)  We will develop a "Dev Vector".  Many users have asked us for open source and the ability to do more with their Vector even to the point of hosting him on their own servers.  With this feature, developers will be able to customize their robot through a bootloader we will develop.  With the robot unlocked, technologists and hobbyists across the globe will finally be able to hack, with safe guards in place, away at Vector for the ultimate AI and machine learning experience!

As a bonus, we will see about putting together an SDK so users can play with Vector's audio stream and system, which we have discovered is a major feature you guys love about this little guy!

This is just the beginning and subject to change, but because you have shown such loyalty and got this project off the ground in the first place, I felt it was necessary to communicate these developments as soon as possible! 

There are a few more details in the comments on this post—Hanchar notes that they didn’t get any of Anki’s physical inventory, meaning that at least for now, you won’t be able to buy any robots from them. However, Hanchar told The Robot Report that they’ve been talking with ex-Anki employees and manufacturers about getting new robots, with a goal of having the whole family (Vector, Cozmo, and Overdrive) available for the 2020 holidays. 

Anki Cozmo robot Anki’s Cozmo robot. Photo: Anki

Despite the announcement on the Vector Kickstarter page, it sounds like Cozmo will be the initial focus, because Cozmo works best with Digital Dream Labs’ existing educational products. The future of Vector, presumably, will depend on how well the forthcoming Kickstarter does. In its FAQ about the Anki acquisition, Digital Dream Labs says that they “will need to examine the business model surrounding Vector before we can relaunch that product,” and speaking with The Robot Report, Hanchar suggested that “monthly subscription packages” in a few different tiers might be the way to make sure that Vector stays profitable. 

It’s probably too early to get super excited about this, but it’s definitely far better news than we were expecting, and Anki’s robots now seem like they could potentially have a future. Hanchar even mentioned something about a “Vector 2.0,” whatever that means. In the short term, I think most folks would be pretty happy with a Vector 1.0 with support, some new features, and no expiration date, and that could be exactly what we’re getting. 

[ Anki Vector ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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