Remember the toys we played with when we were young? Small steam-propelled boats, colourful wind-powered toys like windmills and kites, mechanical toys like giant-wheels, trains and drum-beating rabbits, little plastic and metal cars and vans that were friction-powered—we just had to pull them back and let them rush forth. These were the fanciful toys of our child-hood, which we used to buy from neighbourhood stores, street peddlers and temple-side vendors. Those were lot of fun, but apparently are not so exciting for today’s children. Times are changing, and today’s toy shops look more like science labs. Even the simplest toy is a bump-and-go robot, which was so difficultand costly to mass-manufacture a decade ago.
Inter-disciplinary research, reducing manufacturing cost, easier availability of components, increasing scientific temper amongst children, and the rising affluence of the educated class are fuelling the demand and supply of educational and entertaining toys, which are so high-tech that they can easily qualify as robots or mini-computers.
“Nowadays, it is very difficultto draw a line between a toy and a robot. As the toys are getting advanced, a simple inexpensive robot find it difficult to compete with the features and functions of a sophisticated toy, at least from the user’s point of view. Of course, for toys, the aesthetic value is high too,” says T. Jayakrishnan, director and country manager, Energid Robotics and Machine Vision.
Although this trend has caught on in India only in recent years, the history of robotic toys dates back to many years ago. “The firsttoy robot is believed to be the yellow, boxy, clock-work called Robot Lilliput, invented and mass-manufactured in Japan sometime between 1930 and 1940. It was followed by another Japanese toy called the Atomic Robot Man,” says Jayakrishnan. Replicas of these are still available in certain foreign markets and online stores.
Of course, today’s robotic and computerised toys are much more complex. They seem more like a set-up of numerous electronic and mechanical components, often even microprocessor boards, in the guise of a happy toy! Most of these toys are not just entertaining but educational as well, since they boggle the child’s brain and foster new ideas and technical skills.
Are these toys or robots?
Look at some of the high-tech toys available in the market today and you really cannot differentiate between a toy and a robot. One of the best examples of the current-generation high-tech toys is Lego Mindstorm’s NXT 2.0 Intelligent Brick, which has four sensor inputs and three actuator outputs. It is a robot toy you can build and program. The programming is done through a graphical user inter-face, which lets you fit together logic building blocks like a flowchart.Once the flowchart is ready, the code can be downloaded into the machine to perform the task. The program can be modified and dumped into the machine any number of times till the desired output is achieved.
WowWee’s Robopanda is another example of an entertaining robot toy. It is a playful and talkative interactive friend. Robopanda loves to share stories and jokes, play games, sing songs and talk with children of all ages. It can even crawl on all fours and return to a sitting position. Its working is controlled by interactive cartridge-based content. The user can expand the repertoire of Robopanda’s stories, games and activities by changing activity and story cartridges (sold separately). WowWee has other toys such as Robosapien, Dragonflyand Roboraptor.
“Tomy’s iSobot and Sony’s Rolly are other good examples. Not to forget Roborapter and Pleo—the dinosaur toys,” says Jayakrishnan. “WowWee’s Roboraptor was launched in 2005. The 81.28cm (32-inch) toy has a multi-function remote control that utilises infrared (IR) technology. It is equipped with several sensors that let it interact with its surroundings. It can walk, move around obstacles and run. It can even collect items while running. In 2006, a more complex robotic dinosaur toy called Pleo was launched by Innvo Labs. The toy imitates the appearance and behaviour of a young Camarasaurus. The toy’s large skull conceals the many sensors and motors used for its movements. Pleo’s artifcial intelligence enables each toy to learn from its surroundings and acquire a unique personality. Jayakrishnan adds that Sony’s AIBO, although discontinued now, was a wonderful toy or pet robot with emotions and impulses due to artificial intelligence.
“Outdoor toys like aero-modelling kits are often priced above Rs 30,000. These models have engines or high-performance brushless DC motors, and are controlled by high-end four- to fourteen-channel remote controls. The models might be exact replicas of fighter jets with real mini-sized jet engines on them. Cost of such toys could be around Rs 200,000,” explains Fahad Azad, managing partner, Robosoft Systems. His team is currently working on a do-it-yourself robotic platform with which a child can make multiple kits out of a single set of components. The robot can be controlled through a wireless remote that connects various motors on the controller brain. This will be priced below Rs 1000, and is likely to be launched in Indian retail stores this year.
Robotic toys are also a huge educational aid, even at the higher rungs of the educational ladder. The Nao Humanoid Robot from Aldebaran Robotics, for instance, is an ideal partner for research and teaching in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. With 25 degrees of freedom, Nao is capable of executing a wide range of movements (walking, sitting, standing up, dancing, avoiding obstacles, kicking, seizing objects, etc.). It is fully-autonomous and can establish a secure connection to the Internet to download and broadcast content. It also has a vision system allowing it to capture and send photos, video streams, recognise coloured objects, and detect and recognise faces.
“Aldebaran Robotics has designed Nao to be fully-programmable. Anyone can control Nao via Choregraphe, a user-friendly behavioural editor, by programming C++ modules, or using Python or Urbi script languages. Its multiple sensors, 25 degrees of freedom, onboard computer and graphic programming software make it a complete and autonomous tool for your research. It can be concluded saying that Nao is one the most capable humanoid development platforms in the market today,” says N.H. Shekar, who is a member of RoboMSR—a group of robotics enthusiasts who are being mentored by Dr K.G. Srinivasa at the M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore.
Most of these toys are not manufactured in India but merely imported, and that too at price-points that make them the preserve of the elite. “Although not into manufacturing, Indian companies are involved in the designing of components and assembling of such toys throughout various factories in India. Many of the companies that are popular when it comes to high-tech toys are from the Far East, as they have been able to come up with new technologies even within toys. Companies like United Agencies, Milton Bradley, Playmate and Mayur Exim are the ones that are involved in the assembling of these toys in India. On the whole the market has a huge scope in a country like ours, and there will soon be development of such toys from our own country,” says Praveen Pitchai, Shekar’s team-mate.
• Innvo Labs (Pleo)
• JR Toys House
• Microsoft Xbox
• Nintendo Wii
• Silverlit Electronics
• Tiger Electronics (Furby)
• Vtech Toys
• WowWee Robotics
Take a dekko at the components in them
Depending on the complexity, high-tech toys use components like sensors, actuators and processors or more complex embedded platforms—akin to or the same as those used in robots. Some of the components used are:
Sensors. There are various types of gyroscopes, accelerometers, digital compasses, pressure sensors, strain gauges, image processing cameras, position sensors, bump switches and infrared sensors that are used to detect and avoid obstacles. “Other sensors comprise clap sensors, light sensors and line-flowing sensors,” says Azad.
Touch sensors, which comprise transducers that measure pressure to replicate the sense of human touch; inclinometer sensors, which measure the deviation from the horizon using gravity; position-sensitive devices and detectors, which are optical position sensors to measure the position of a light spot in one- or two-dimensions on a sensor’s surface are all frequently used in today’s high-tech toys.
Integrated circuits. Dozens of integrated circuits (ICs) go into the making of high-tech toys. The number and the family of ICs used mainly depend on the desired functionality of that particular toy. “Say, if you have a plug-in toy that moves around the room avoiding obstacles, it might have ICs such as the microcontroller—to work as the brain of the toy (many families are used like AVR, PIC, etc.); a voltage regulator—to manage charging and tasks like stepping down the applied voltage to required voltage (e.g., 7805); capacitors and resistors; light-emitting diode (LED) drivers like the LT1618, if necessary; a motor driver—that controls the direction and speed of the motors; RS232 (MAX232)—for serial communication and changing the function of the toy (generally used in educational toys like Lego Mindstorm),” says Shekar.
8- to 32-bit microprocessors are commonly used in such toys. Pleo, for example, uses a 32-bit microprocessor.
Genibo is an articulated dog-like four-legged robot that can do all kinds of motions including scratching the ground, standing on front paws, dancing, taekwondo, etc. Genibo expresses its feelings through approximately 700 emotional actions, the emoticon LEDs in its eyes, and puppy sounds. It can recognise human faces, such as the owner’s face through the camera on its nose. As it gets closer to its owner, the Genibo becomes happier and better at finding and following its owner.
It also has eleven touch sensors, a speaker, voice and visual recognition. The gyrosensor, IR interface and remote controller can be used for a more sophisticated control of actions, sounds and emoticons that assist in communication.
Some specifications of the Robot Dog are as follows:
Wireless components. Most toys these days include wireless transceivers. 2.4 GHz wireless capability is not uncommon.
Actuators. Motors are the most common output of any toy. These may differ from basic direct-current (DC) motors to servo motors, depending on their application. “Some toys have IC engines on them, whereas for game-stations, the output is graphics on a television or computer screen,” explains Azad.
Selection of components
Most of the components used in today’s toys seem like those used in robots and smartphones, yet one cannot afford to use the very same high-end equipment in toys as in robots all the time. “In the selection of components, cost is one of the deciding factors. With similar set of features and functions, a toy cannot be priced as high as a robot. Since the sales volume is higher for toys, this issue can be handled to some extent,” says Jayakrishnan.
Some of the components are custom-made by or for the toymakers, while at other times the toymakers simply use off-the-shelf components. “The Lego Mindstorm processor, for example, is custom-made as the processor didn’t exist. Besides this, the Xbox 360 and Konnect sensors are also completely custom-made using existing technology. For some other simple autonomous applications, ready-made sensors and processes are also used,” says Azad.
Off-the-shelf components reduce the time and cost of development and are the firstchoice of any company. The cost of development of custom-made devices is quite high. A company would go in for it only when they are sure that it is going to be a disruptive technology, which will ensure them huge profits.While this difference is less critical for external and mechanical components, the cost difference can be extremely high for electronic components.
“For embedded platforms and sensors, toys and actual robots share a lot of common components. To cut down the cost companies often go for a different sort of package. Some chips can be bought as dies and then can be directly wire-bound to a PCB with an epoxy covering. In any case, the chip package can contribute up to near 50 per cent of the cost,” opines Jayakrishnan.
Toy-making is not child’s play
Forget being child’s play, it is not even just an art. Toy-making is a complete science. “It might comprise embedded systems, market research, manufacturing, product design, computer science, and various ranges of psychology. It takes a minimum of a year to come up with a high-end robotic toy. The aim of the team is to fulfil a requirement or need of the market, which has not been addressed so far, or to do it in a much more creative way,” says Azad.
In doing so, there are multiple factors such as user-friendliness, price, standards, safety regulations, etc, that a robot-toy team should keep in mind.
Keep it simple. The more interactive a toy, the more complex are the components inside it. However, this complexity should be hidden completely from the users. The toy should be really easy to use, as the users or children are obviously not going to read a 200-page manual before beginning to use the toy.
Price it optimally. The toy should also be optimally priced, in sync with a toy’s capabilities. “Minimal number of components should be used, and all the devices should be used to the maximum capabilities, because as and when the components increase the cost of the toy also increases. The kind of features the toy promises should justify the cost of the product, or the consumer will never pay for the safety and its standards. Every component used for the making of toys should be sent to the laboratory for testing before it is launched in the market,” says Azad.
Remember all the regulations. Various regulations related to safety and quality standards are laid down and enforced by the concerned government bodies of almost all countries—these regulations are especially tight in foreign nations.
“Before entering the market, products have to go through rigorous tests that check their quality and safety for consumers. In the case of toys there are many standards governing each component used, since it was found that in 2005, in the US 20 children under the age of fifteen died in accidents associated with toys, and an estimated 202,300 children under fifteen were treated in US hospitals’ emergency rooms for injuries associated with toys,” explains Vineet Sahu, member of RoboMSR, referring to data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
Regulations govern mechanical and physical properties, electrical components, paints, flammability,etc. For example, all live electrical components must be securely enclosed; heating elements must be supported and prevented from making contacts that might produce shock hazards; products must not exceed maximum surface temperature requirements; proper heat sinks should be provided to drain the heat generated (this is a major research and develpoment challenge today), and so on.
There are even regulations that govern the psychological impact of a toy on a child. For example, the toy should not hurt the sentiments of special children and it should not foster terror.
Jayakrishnan warns, “Even though the age limit for every toy is prescribed, these toys will possibly be within the reach of children below the age group. Hence, great care should be taken while designing as well as selecting components.”
Watch and imbibe the latest technologies. Research and development (R&D) in fields like robotics, embedded systems, vision, sensors and semiconductors immediately trigger innovations in high-tech toys. “There is a huge demand for such toys and hence plenty of funds and offers are flowing in for R&D of robotic toys,” says Shekar. There is a lot of R&D concerning the development of more efficient heat sinks, making of smaller and varied motors, development of safer, nontoxic materials for the body/chassis, better methods for controlling the actuators, more user-friendly inter-faces, etc. “As the industry grows, R&D in artificial intelligence would also have a major impact on robotic toys,” says Shekar.
Jayakrishnan concludes, “The distinction between lower-end robots and high-tech toys is limited to only the price, the level of adaptability and flexibility in programming, and hardware. Hence, it is not a line but a band that exists due to the overlap of these two products. Yes, a few decades back children were satisfiedwith kites, blocks, dolls and other non-mechanical toys. But certainly, with the onset of digital technology, the advancements in animation, etc, they need more high-tech and life-like toys. So, the new trend of toys getting high-tech also helps in the smooth introduction of robotics to our children!”
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Singapore