Category: Toys

This is how the Robopocalypse starts

Our robotic future is fun... and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

Our robotic future is fun… and a little scary? Photo courtesy of Parrot S.A.

This article originally appeared on CTVNews.ca

Yesterday, at an exclusive event in downtown Toronto, members of the press were invited to the official launch of two new robotic products from Parrot S.A., the French company responsible for popularizing so-called “drones” – remote controlled quad-rotor flying platforms that contain a pair of cameras capable of recording high-definition video.

The company has had enormous success with their AR.Drone (now in its second generation), having sold over 700,000 of the $350 devices since 2010. And though there has been an explosion of growth in the drone market, both in the high-end commercial segment and the budget-friendly toy segment, Parrot has maintained a decisive lead by combining high-quality components and engineering with easy-to-master controls thanks to its use of Wi-Fi equipped smartphones and tablets as the “remote.”

Parrot-Rolling-Spider-minidrone-in-flight

Parrot’s two new products, part of a line they call “MiniDrones,” follow in the footsteps of the AR.Drone. The Rolling Spider is a $119 miniature quad-rotor flying vehicle that fits in the palm of your hand. Equipped with detachable wheels that give the Spider an angry-bee-trapped-in-a-hamster-wheel appearance, it can roll along floors, up walls and along ceilings without any danger of the tiny propellers coming in contact with nearby objects. Thanks to a plethora of on-board sensors and gyros, The Rolling Spider is simple enough for a child to operate. It even has a high-res, downward-facing camera that can snap still images during flights. The rechargeable and replaceable battery is good for about 8 minutes of continuous flight. You can fly the Rolling Spider indoors or outside, but because it’s connected via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, the operational range is limited to about 66 feet.

In practice, the Rolling Spider is a hoot to fly. Amazingly stable yet highly responsive, it emits a high-pitched whine that makes comparisons to bees, wasps or even mosquitoes more apt than to a spider.  Horizontal flight is buttery-smooth while vertical lifts and drops happen incredibly fast.  Irritated by a pilot who decides to fly it too close to your head? Go ahead and swat the Spider out of your way – it will right itself and continue on its flight path as though nothing had happened. We can only assume it doesn’t take such acts of aggression personally.

Parrot uses the same flight control scheme from the AR.Drone with the Rolling Spider and it is truly easy enough to learn that you can fly the Spider confidently after a few minutes of experimentation. Getting the Spider to execute an aerobatic 360 degree flip in mid-air requires nothing more than a double-tap on the smartphone’s screen.

Finally, if you can bare to separate yourself long enough from the Rolling Spider to let your kid play with it, they’ll be delighted to find that Parrot has included a set of stickers that can be used to customize the Spider’s appearance. Most of them make the Rolling Spider look like something that’s about to bite you.

Parrot-Jumping-Sumo-minidrones

Their second product in the MiniDrone line is the $179 Jumping Sumo. A quirky blend of remote-controlled car, mobile camera platform and, well, grasshopper, this two-wheeled vehicle has more in common with a Segway scooter than a garden-variety RC car. Equipped with a wide-angle front-facing camera, the Sumo can stream live video of everything it sees back to the smartphone, giving its driver a first-person perspective. The diminutive vehicle can be driven manually, using the on-screen controls and can perform impressive maneuvers such as 90 or 180-degree turns in an instant, or you can pre-program a specific route which can then be executed at the tap of the screen.

But the Jumping Sumo’s most impressive trick is, as its name suggests, the ability to jump up to three feet into the air, with a level of precision that allows experienced drivers to land it on a surface not much larger than the Sumo’s own footprint. The jumps are accomplished via a powerful, spring-loaded piston that can be primed and released in less than two seconds. Flip the Jumping Sumo “upside down” (a hard position to identify when dealing with a robot that doesn’t seem to care which way is up) and it can use the same mechanism to launch itself away from fixed objects, or “kick” loose objects out of its path. In an impressive demonstration of strength, I watched as a Parrot employee put a sizeable dent in an empty pop can using this technique.

As frightening as it sounds, Parrot has even equipped the Jumping Sumo with a “personality.” With a Furby-like set of responses, the Sumo will emit different sounds under different conditions. Perhaps most disturbing is the language Parrot uses to describe these interactions in its marketing material: “Pet its head, pat its body and it reacts to make you understand its affection for you.” Hmm. “Make you understand”… is this merely an awkward translation from French, Parrot’s native tongue, or is it a sign that we are no longer the ones who are in control? If you still have any doubts, consider this: When the Jumping Sumo finds itself in an “uncomfortable” situation, its “eyes” turn from placid green to a menacing red. Stanley Kubrick tried to warn us about artificial intelligence with red eyes…

While it’s clear that these two MiniDrones—which go on sale in August—are very much designed to be toys (parents get ready for the holiday wish-list onslaught), make no mistake, these are highly sophisticated pieces of technology that have more in common with commercial and even military drone applications than their size and price would indicate. With the exception of their operating distances, battery life and perhaps durability, these two “toys” represent cutting-edge technology.

If you’ve ever spent time wondering what your kids will be equipped to do when they enter the job market, perhaps it’s time to introduce them to a MiniDrone. It could set them up for an upwardly mobile career path in our increasingly robotic world.

See the Rolling Spider in action:

See the Jumping Sumo in action:

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Buckyballs banned in the U.S. Will Canada follow suit?

Buckyballs and their nearly identical competitor, Nanodots, are very popular magnetic “toys” that let you create a nearly infinite amount of 3D shapes by combining tiny magnetic spheres into different layouts. But those magnets are made from rare-earth neodymium and are incredibly strong given their diminutive size and that presents a serious danger to children.

There is a very real possibility that a child could accidentally ingest two or more of the magnets and, once in the digestive tract, they could cause serious damage to internal organs as they trap tissue between them, or become lodged permanently. Pets are also at risk.

Because of this, both Buckyballs and Nanodots have issued very clear and strongly worded warnings to adults that these construction kits not be given to children or kept anywhere children can access them.

This is good advice, but apparently it’s not good enough. USA Today reports that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has filed suit against the maker of Buckyballs and that retailers have responded by pulling the product from store shelves.

According to their article,

Dozens of children have ingested the tiny magnets in Buckyballs and similar products sold by competitors. At least 12 of the ingestions involved Buckyballs and many required surgeries.

Reuters is reporting that the CPSC has taken the unprecedented move of ordering the manufacturer to cease distribution of the product, something the commission hasn’t done since 2001.

In Canada, the product is sold by Chapters-Indigo and can also be purchased online.

A few years ago, I was sent a sample of Nanodots to try out and was amazed by the way the balls could be assembled. I decided, in spite of the warning, to let my then eight-year-old son to try them out under my close supervision. He adored them. It wasn’t long before he was creating some truly amazing 3D creations. But my wife and I made it clear that the product was dangerous and needed to be handled with great care.

Thankfully, nothing bad has ever happened in our home and my son has continued to show great responsibility in his handling of the product. But I have noticed that even with care, it’s easy for the little balls to escape one’s grip and end up rolling under a piece of furniture. That’s not where you want a super-strong, tiny magnet living for any length of time.

This ban hasn’t changed my decision, but it does serve as an excellent reminder to anyone who has this product or is considering buying it: please exercise extreme caution when handling them – the danger is real.

[USA Today via Gizmodo]

Parrot AR.Drone hits Canada for the holidays

The Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter

The Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter

I confess, at the age of 41 I am still completely drawn in by cool toys, even if they are targeted to a much younger audience.

It’s not that I didn’t get some great toys as a kid – I did. But my dreams always seemed to exceed reality and most of the toys I had were less exciting than I wanted them to be.

One example from my youth is the VertiBird, a remote-controlled helicopter that was tethered to a central base station by way of a rigid control arm. The tiny chopper could rise and fall through the air and circle forward or backward around the base station. It even came with a tail hook that could be used to lift the plastic “getaway” car and obstacle that came in the package. It was hours of fun, but I have always wished it could fly around the room with complete freedom.

Mattel's VertiBird. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

Mattel's VertiBird. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

Until a few years ago that wish was nothing more than that – a wish. Then suddenly, onto the toy scene burst a wave of remote helis that were the same size and shape as the Whirlybird but this time they really could go anywhere and stay aloft for up to 5 minutes assuming you could keep them from crashing – not an easy thing to do. But they were super fun, and unbelievably cheap at between $25 – $50. The one I bought for myself my son two seasons ago is still limping along having long since exceeded all my expectations for amusement.

But naturally a remote heli enthusiast like me (and now my son) wants even more. And until I saw a YouTube demo of Parrot’s AR.Drone Quadricopter, I had no idea what “more” could mean.

The AR.Drone is a remote controlled chopper like no other. It is controlled by Wi-Fi via an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad (NOT included) and soon other platforms like Android devices. It can be flown indoors and outdoors my adding or removing special “hulls” that surround the 4 propellers and protect them from impacts. It has two on-board cameras – one facing front, the other facing down. If this isn’t already sounding like the most awesome toy ever you must be from the future.

Screen capture from the AR.Pursuit app. Image courtesy of iTunes. Click for larger image.

Screen capture from the AR.Pursuit app. Image courtesy of iTunes. Click for larger image.

The app that controls the AR.Drone is called AR.Freeflight which is free on Apple’s App Store.  The app gives you full control over the choppers movement and camera views. But wait, it gets better. Parrot has released their AR.Drone SDK, which allows any developer to create additional apps that layer functionality on top of AR.Freeflight’s basic controls. One example of this is the AR.Pursuit app which uses an augmented reality system to superimpose missile and gun-based dogfighting over the front camera’s feed. I’m giddy just describing it.

The good news is that Canadians can now get their hands on the UK invention from big box retailer Best Buy. The bad news – this is not a flyweight purchase. At $349 the AR.Drone won’t be making its way under tons of trees this year – especially if an i-device isn’t already in the hands of the prospective new pilot. But for those who are willing to invest the money, bragging rights – and some awesome flying experiences can be… had… with… a… click.

Sony Dash vs. Chumby One: Battle of the "internet viewers"

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Sony's Dash (left) and Chumby Industries' Chumby One (right)

Some of you might recall a few years ago, a little device made its way onto the gadget scene that let you wirelessly connect to the web so that you could see stuff. All kinds of stuff. It had a touch screen and even a “squeeze sensor.” It was called the Chumby. It was 2008, the iPad was still 2 years away and the Chumby was a bizarre but charming hybrid between an iPod Touch and a beanbag.

Based on open-source software with an embedded version of Adobe’s Flash, the Chumby runs apps that appear on its diminutive screen in a never-ending slideshow of information. If you’ve ever looked up at one of those elevator screens that show you headlines, weather etc., you’ll get the concept. I was immediately taken by the idea and hounded the folks at Chumby to send me one. Sadly, they wouldn’t do it since the Chumby wasn’t eligible for sale outside of the U.S. In the end, I gave up on ever getting my hands on a Chumby and moved on to other things.

It’s now 2010 and here’s what’s been going on with the Chumby in the intervening years…
It seems I wasn’t the only one who saw lots of potential in the cuddly little web-viewer. It ended up being named by Wired Magazine as a top gadget for 2008. In 2009 Chumby Industries created the Chumby One – a cheaper version of the original Chumby encased in hard white plastic instead of the Italian-leather exterior of its older brother. The Chumby One lacks the original’s squeezable form factor but introduces a large volume knob on the side and an FM radio. But perhaps more interestingly, Sony took notice of the Chumby platform and began development of their own internet appliance, the HID-C10, otherwise known as the Sony Dash, which they debuted at this year’s CES show in January. If the Chumby One is retro-looking clock-radio with a touch-screen, the Dash is a thoroughly modern wide-screen HDTV. Yet both devices run the Chumby widget platform, and now – for the first time – both devices are available to Canadians which means the time is ripe for a comparison.

Before we dive in though, here’s how the Chumby/Dash devices work, in case everything I’ve written to this point has left you wondering what I’m rambling on about. Feel free to skip to the specs if you’ve heard this before…

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Sony's Dash has a modern, monolithic shape compared to the Chumby One's toy-like appearance

Chumbys and Dashs use your Wi-Fi network to connect to the web. After some minor configurations steps on the devices themselves, you use your PC or Mac to customize the content that the gadgets display through a dedicated website. The site lets you choose from amongst the 1000+ Chumby apps that are freely available, which you can then organize into “channels”. Think of Chumby/Dash channels as TV channels – you choose the kind of programming you want on each channel. Once set, you can “change channel” anytime from the device itself. Most folks will likely stick to a single channel, but having the choice to view others is handy.

Each app comes with its own set of customizable features. The Picasa widget lets you choose a URL with your photos, while the Weather Channel lets you choose your city and preferred temperature display (Celsius or Fahrenheit), and the Facebook Newsfeed app lets you “like” or comment on your friends’ updates – the latter via an on-screen keyboard. Others only let you choose how long they will remain on the screen.

App content runs the gamut from News to Travel and everything in between, but some categories are more populated than others. “Clocks” for instance has over 200 apps, which I suppose isn’t surprising given that these devices are primarily intended as desktop or bedside table companions. There are even some games you can play using the touch-screen such as “Reversi” or “Pinball” but frankly neither the Dash nor the Chumby One are especially good gaming gadgets.

Personally, I’ve gotten the most out of a combination of news, Facebook updates & photos, and humour. That’s the channel I keep running during the day. But I’ve also got a channel that runs a single app: Flickr. It runs continuously and turns the Chumby into an ever-changing digital photo frame. It’s also a great way to discover new photos as the app lets you see public photos by keyword – my suggestion: use seasonal terms like “autumn.”

Okay now that you know a bit more about how these Chumby-driven devices work, let’s get back to the comparison with a look at the specs…

  Sony Dash  Chumby One 
Price   $229 CDN  $119 USD
 Screen size  7″  3.5″
 Screen resolution  800×480  320×240
 Wi-Fi  b/g  b/g
 Video Playback  Windows® Media Video 9 (up to MP@HL 1080p)
Microsoft VC-1 (up to AP@L3 720p)
MPEG 4.10/H.264 (up to MP@L4.0 1080p)
 FLV
H.264
 Audio Playback  MP3, AAC, WMA  MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC and M4A
 Audio-in  Microphone  Microphone
 Audio-out  Headphone jack  Headphone jack
 Speakers  Stereo, 1W+1W  Mono, 2W
 Power  A/C adapter  A/C Adapter with travel plugs or optional Li-ion rechargeable battery
 USB  1 USB 2.0 port  1 USB 2.0 port
 Accelerometer  Yes  Yes
 FM Tuner  No  Yes
 Ethernet over USB  No  Yes

A few things jump out at you when you look at this list.

First, the Dash is twice the price of the Chumby One. Actually it’s a little less than that since the Chumby One is priced in US$ and you’ll have to pay for shipping and possibly duties, whereas you can drop by your local Sony Store and buy the Dash – or via SonyStyle.ca. The Chumby One can only be bought online through their web store.

This price difference brings us to the other big difference: the screens. The Dash’s screen is likely the biggest reason for the extra bucks. It’s nearly twice the diagonal size and more than double the resolution. And though Sony doesn’t publish the details on its processor, I’m guessing it’s more powerful than the Chumby’s. That said, it is a very nice screen. Not razor-sharp like you’d find on an iPad or a laptop but still very good to look at.

Why the larger, wider screen on the Dash? In a word: video. Although Sony has chosen to “wrap” the Chumby experience in its own themed dashboards, the main reason the screen has 16×9 ratio is to facilitate video playback, something the Dash does much better than the Chumby. Most of the video-watching options are via a menu of streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix, but the unit can also play compatible video (and audio) files off of an attached USB key – at least that’s the plan. Currently the video portion of this feature is listed as “coming soon” when you try to use it. To be fair, Sony doesn’t promote this aspect of the Dash on their website but it’s tormenting to be offered the menu item and then not be able to take advantage The video quality is surprisingly good and while I didn’t try streaming full movies on the Dash (not quite sure why you’d want to) I did watch several of the movie trailers, some of which were in HD, from Flixster and the stream quality was rock-solid. Sound from the Dash’s internal stereo speakers is, as you’d expect from such a small device, on the tinny side but the volume is enough for the 2-3 feet experience.

The other video options on the Dash include: FIFA World Cup, blip.tv, Wired, Syle.com. FordModels, DailyMotion and many others. But the big omission from this list is Sony’s own Crackle.com free movie service, which launched in Canada earlier this year.

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

The Chumby One won't win any beauty contests but it sure is cute

Video playback isn’t Chumby’s strong suit, but that’s not a deal-breaker and given the smaller size of the Chumby One’s screen, you probably won’t find yourself wishing it could handle more video.

Instead, the Chumby focuses on audio. The audio options include playback of several audio formats (see list above) from a connected USB storage device, various streaming services such as ShoutCast, podcasts from NYT, Mediafly and CBS, the ability to playback content from an attached iPod, or a collection of internet streams known as “Sleep Sounds” (rain falling, white noise, waves crashing etc.) – kind makes sense for a bedside gadget right? Makes you wonder why the Dash doesn’t have it. But the Dash does have native support for Slacker Radio, which for those who subscribe to the streaming service, will be a big plus.

While it’s true that the Chumby One only produces monophonic sound from its internal speaker, don’t let the cheap-looking plastic exterior fool you. Much like the Tivoli Model One – a mono desktop radio with a huge cult following – the Chumby One manages to pump out surprisingly rich sound. You can’t crank the volume very high, but it doesn’t matter; the sound that you do get is great.

The ironic thing here is that the Dash is arguably the natural heir to the Radio-Alarm-clock experience given Sony’s age-old domination of the category via their omnipresent Dream Machine product line. And yet the Dash lacks a built-in radio which has been a mainstay of the alarm clock for decades. The Chumby One on the other hand, has an FM tuner complete with an external wire antenna that tucks into the battery compartment when not in use. Speaking of batteries, shouldn’t all modern alarm clocks contain at least a back-up battery? The Dash has one that keeps the clock time from needing to be reset, but you’re still without functionality in the event of a power-outage. The Chumby One doesn’t have a backup battery but you can add one yourself and it not only helps in the event of a power failure, it lets the Chumby One operate completely cord-free for up to an hour.

Another great feature on the Chumby One is the ability to assign a timer to your audio playback. You can choose from 5 to 240 minutes in 5-minute increments before the timer shuts off the sound – great for people who like to fall asleep to music but who don’t want their dreams to have a soundtrack.

By now, some of you have noticed that the microphone – a feature of both devices – doesn’t appear to have a purpose. You’re right. So far, none of the Chumby apps or the Dash’s proprietary functions make use of the mic. I’m probably not alone in hoping that a Skype app will surface sooner rather than later… how cool would it be to chat via one of these gadgets from the comfort of your bed without needing a PC or smartphone?

Alright, it’s bottom-line time. Which of these devices should you buy?

My overall recommendation goes to the Chumby One. The cheaper price, great sound, uncluttered interface and retro-appeal make the Chumby One a very attractive choice. The more expensive Sony Dash doesn’t offer enough extra features in my opinion, to justify the extra dollars. That said, there are bound to be some who feel the premium is worth it in order to get the Sony brand name and reputation, the sophisticated dark-wedge design, the superior video playback and the larger, wider screen. If, for instance, you need a device like this for the kitchen, the Dash’s larger display would be a distinct benefit. Likewise, if you plan on using either of these gadgets as a serious digital photo frame replacement, the Dash wins again. However, after having used both devices – and given the plethora of options I have at the home and office for watching video and looking at photos, I feel the Dash’s extras are nice-to-haves but certainly not need-to-haves.