As you know from decades of watching sci-fi movies, robots come in 2 metallic flavors: Helpful manservants that speak with an affected British accent or psychotic murder machines sent back from the future to kill John Conner. But there’s a booming third category that is going to benefit your kid: Educational bots that can teach them everything from ping-pong to social skills.
If you’re looking to start the robot revolution in your own home, here are some consumer models that are programmed to be cool.
Young inventors can use this modular kit to build not one, but hundreds of different bots. All they have to do is connect the programmable rotating orbs, called “cells,” via a twist-and-lock mechanism. When they attach them to a central heart (aka, the lithium ion orb that acts as a battery) it starts doing their bidding. Kids can get creative and come up with their own design, or follow one of the 50 blueprints in the shape library. Add cameras, wheels, mounts — it’s up to the designer (or The Architect, as they’ll want to be called).
CellRobot ($155 – $625)
Marty The Robot
Part toy, part DIY STEM project, Marty The Robot is a walking mini-bot that your young Anakin Skywalker can build from a kit. Depending on their age, they’ll pick up all kinds of science-y stuff about electronics, mechanics, and the basics of computer programming using languages like Scratch and Python. The kit includes 36 parts (motors, sensors, and a control board) and requires no tools or soldering to complete. There’s a literal spring in Marty’s step, as he used 2 coils to support his weight, and 3 motors to move forward, backward, and side-to-side. That means your kid can walk with him, practice soccer dribbling, and even have a dance off. (What are the odds his best move is the robot?)
Marty the Robot ($126)
You like Siri. You 2 have gotten along ever since she started giving you turn-by-turn directions and telling you how many milliliters are in an ounce. But lately her personality seems a little flat. Enter Cozmo from Anki, a tiny robot reminiscent of Wall-E, who makes good on the promise that robots with soon be imbued with genuine human emotions. Not only can Cozmo recognize you from you kid, get sassy when you’re not paying attention, or be cute when you are, he (or she — you respect its privacy) can play games with the included Power Blocks. Or you can just get it to clean up after that Boston Dynamics dog.
Ziro is a robot-building kit that replaces a traditional screen-based UI with a gesture-based one. The Pro Kit comes with 4 card deck-sized motorized modules, an app, and the “smart glove.” Each module has 2 functions: A 360-degree rotation that can be used to drive wheels and a hinge function that can be used to slingshot things at your dog. The kit also has parts to construct a rover and a trike, but Ziro is meant to be a platform for all sorts of DIY robots. Go ahead and make a cardboard R2-D2 that’s so cool, Disney might not even sue Ziro over it (emphasis on might). All of this is controlled by dramatically waving your hand.
Ziro Pro Kit ($229)
As Force Awakens fans already know, little robot balls are great companions. Leka uses sensors to detect and interact with children with Autism and develop their emotional fluency. It also comes preloaded with a bunch of games, including “Hide and Go Leka,” “Picture Bingo,” (where it can identify everyday objects that are help up to it) and “Color Memory,” (where kids match Leka’s colors to RFID-enabled tiles you can put around the room). The ultimate goal is to let these kids be more autonomous, which is why in between all the robo-play parents can upload reports to a smartphone or tablet to chart their progress. Leka isn’t slated to roll into American homes until May 2017, but if you pre-order now you’ll save almost $200.
Leka Robot ($490)
At 4 feet tall, with 1200+ parts and 10 motors powering articulated limbs, the only thing more fun than building this bot is playing with it. It’s programmable through learned intelligent motion or motion capture, has voice recognition, and comes preloaded with 1000+ phrases, facts, jokes, and dance moves. All that, with a face like Johnny 5 and a name like Jambi’s catchphrase. That brain spasm you just felt is 1986 you losing his damn mind.
Meccano MeccaNoid G15 KS ($300)
Dash & Dot
Dash & Dot are a pair of adorable, programmable robots that can build, make music, or just drive around looking festive in reindeer antlers and Santa hats, because they’re LEGO-compatible. Coding the bots to do their bidding helps kids understand that computers are actually machines that people build to do what they want, not just sentient hunks of metal that wreak havoc out of the box. Not yet, anyway.
Wonder Workshop Dash & Dot Robot Wonder Pack ($280)
Sphero SPRK Edition
SPRK — which stands for Schools, Parents, Robots, Kids — does all the app-controlled spinning, jumping, and R2D2 attitude-flipping that the original Sphero does, but ups the ante in 2 significant ways. First, it lets kids start coding without any prior experience simply by dragging and dropping visual blocks in an app (iOs, Android) that controls elements like speed, heading, and spin. Second, SPRK features a transparent shell, so they can literally see how their programs translate to the ball’s robotics. SPRK is also compatible with all the original Sphero games and apps, so simply switching it to drive mode and terrorizing the cat is a-okay. Learning should be fun, after all.
Sphero SPRK Edition ($130)
These blocks snap together using magnets and ball-bearings to form thousands of robots. Kids as young as 4 can build simple robots (and their understanding of larger systems) with Cubelets, while MOSS kits offer more complex robot builds that older kids can program to respond to light and proximity. Consider these the ghosts of LEGO future, after the robots have taken over and blocks have evolved.
Modular Robotics ($150 And Up)
LittleBits Gizmos And Gadgets
Feel like taking a crack at building your own automaton? LittleBits are electronic building block kits full of buttons, triggers, switches, wires, batteries, motors, LEDs, and more (the “Bits”) to encourage your kid (the “Little”) to invent all the things. This kit was dubbed “The ultimate invention toolbox” because its 60+ parts can create 12 included inventions — among them a “Bubblebot,” pinball machine, and RC car — plus hundreds more online. All those hours of creativity and distraction should excite you more than a little bit.
LittleBits Gizmos & Gadgets ($200)
If you’ve decided ping-pong is the fastest way for you to raise an Olympic champion, Trainerbot will be your kid’s coach for a fraction of what it would cost to fly Deng Yaping over for a tutorial. This smartphone-connected wireless device holds 30 ping-pong balls and fires them at random intervals and levels of difficulty. All you have to do is pair it to your iPhone, select the level of difficulty, and Trainerbot will bring the pain. It even has a multiplayer mode that fires at different rates to either side of the net. Just try asking Roomba to serve a ball with varying spin rotation and velocity. It can’t. And that’s because Roomba hates fun!