It is with much rejoicing that today we can share that one of our favorite robotics startups, Dash Robotics, is acquiring another of our favorite robotics startups, Bots Alive. Usually, we don’t cover acquisitions, or when we do, it’s with resigned skepticism—all too often, one company gets completely swallowed by another, and the things that made them unique and exciting simply vanish.
The sense that we get from talking with Dash Robotics’ CEO Nick Kohut and Bots Alive founder Brad Knox is that the amazing things that Bots Alive does fit right in with the equally amazing but totally different things that Dash Robotics does, and that together, they’ll be able to come up with some totally cool (and totally affordable) robotic toys with sophisticated personalities built right in.
Part of the reason that we’re fans of Dash Robotics and Bots Alive is that they’re both successful examples of taking robotics research and turning it directly into a compelling product. Dash Robotics turned UC Berkeley’s DASH pop-up hexapod robot into a skittery and blisteringly fast toy called Kamigami that’s now being sold in partnership with Mattel for US $50, while Bots Alive’s software runs on your phone and gives a $20 Hexbug more brains and personality than an enthusiastic and mildly well trained puppy. From Dash Robotics’ press release announcing the acquisition:
The Bots Alive computer vision system employs the camera of a smartphone or tablet to track over 15 objects at once, rapidly and accurately, whether the objects are moving or stationary. Using Bluetooth Low Energy, up to 8 robots can be commanded at one time. A 3D representation of the play area is built in the software by tracking the position and orientation of every tracked object. This means that robots are aware of their position and orientation relative to other robots, other objects, and the user. This is what enables robots to chase each other, face the user, or execute numerous other behaviors that make it feel “aware.”
Machine Learning is what gives the robot toys real personality. Robots in the Bots Alive system can learn from user interaction, and never react the same way to a situation twice. This allows certain robots to be aggressive, or timid, or giving, or selfish, depending on the game they’re playing, how they’ve been treated in the past, and what the user has “taught” them. This opens up a huge world of character building and human-toy interaction that was never before possible.
The synergy here is obvious—Dash has a capable and robust hardware platform, which Bots Alive’s machine learning and computer vision system can seamlessly imbue with all kinds of new capabilities. Connected toys are going to be bigger than they already are, and with the cleverness and flexibility and learning potential that Bots Alive brings to the table, Dash Robotics is positioning itself to offer a platform of flexible hardware and complex, adaptive software. Sadly, they’re not announcing anything specific in terms of new robots quite yet, but we did chat with Nick and Brad for a bit to hear about what their future plans are:
IEEE Spectrum: Can you talk about what made you decide to acquire Bots Alive?
Nick Kohut: It’s a really good fit for lots of reasons. I think on the technical side, Bots Alive gives really lifelike behavior to the robots, while our mechanical technology gives a lot of lifelike motion to the robots. Pairing those two things is a very powerful combination that’s more than the sum of its parts. You start to get a really lifelike creature. And from the business side, we get a lot of new capabilities with Bots Alive, and it allows the Bots Alive technology to spread its wings out to a pretty wide audience fairly quickly.
Brad Knox: Joining Dash is complementary in a couple different ways. We’d been using machine learning to create lifelike behaviors for robots, and Dash has been making these really lifelike little critters. They were already on our radar as people we’d really like to work with. After our Kickstarter, we’d made the decision to work on more of a platform approach on the software side that would allow us to partner with toy companies to bring their toys to life. So it really was immediately apparent that this was something that could work out really well.
What kinds of new capabilities can we expect to see?
Knox: There’s a wide range. You can think of our software as having two main components. One that we’re for sure going to be using in the near future is having the phone sense the toy and its environment and then control it. One way to frame that is that you’re putting a digital wrapper on the physical world, making it so that in the app, you know what’s happening around these characters that are being controlled. At that point, it frees you as the developer to treat the toy like a videogame character, and apply videogame mechanics to it. Whereas most toys, even if they’re connected, there’s not quite enough sensing on what’s going on to really enable a large range of game mechanics. With the added sensing that Bots Alive gives, it opens up the possibility of programming these mobile toys using the same techniques that are used for video games.
How specifically is your approach different from connected toys that have characters built in?
Knox: With machine learning, there’s an added authenticity that you can get by having a human puppeteer who’s really taking on the role of establishing the personality of a character by demonstrating movements and emotions. By having the puppeteer actually express what a character should do directly through their control, we can get a much more authentic and believable personality.
Essentially, what Brad is talking about is the difference between someone programming an emotional reaction into a robot by scripting a specific sequence of actions, versus someone puppeteering the robot through a whole bunch of emotional reactions, and letting the system gradually learn a much more generalized form of that emotion that it can then apply in many different ways. There’s also some potential for making it easy for end users to teach their robot new tasks, or even entirely new personalities, through demonstration rather than programming.
Photo: Bots Alive
It sounds like we might have at least one or two new toys to look forward to in 2018, and you’ll know all about them as soon as we do. Meanwhile, don’t forget that you can get a Kamigami for just $50 right now, making it simultaneously one of the least expensive and most fun little robots that you could possibly gift someone for the holidays. And do yourself a favor and buy another to keep, while you’re at it.
[ Dash Robotics ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.