Edtech Company Resurrects AI Robots and Smart Toy Cars

Published on March 8, 2020

Pittsburgh-based edutainment tech company Digital Dream Labs recently acquired three popular AI robots from the defunct robotics firm Anki, and they have big plans for them.

In January they announced the acquisition of A.I. race car system Overdrive, as well as consumer AI robots Cozmo and Vector. And, they reached their $75,000 Kickstarter goal to revamp Vector in one day—continuing to blow past it as the campaign comes to an end this week.

“The opportunity to acquire exclusive ownership of Cozmo, Vector and Overdrive fit perfectly into our mission and purpose-driven culture,” said Chief Marketing Officer Matt Goren, in their January press release.

“We plan to change the current narrative of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, giving a voice to our customers, while relaunching Cozmo, Vector, and Overdrive with updates and new features on the way…”

Digital Buddy

Vector, an autonomous robot, resembles a mini toy tractor with colorful, expressive digital eyes. It promises companionship and an array of capabilities. The AI robots can answer questions by connecting to The Internet, function as a timer or alarm, self-charge, and navigate around the home while avoiding obstacles. In addition, it can take photos and show you the weather. Yes, show you—as in having raindrop shapes appear on its face/screen when you ask for a weather update.

With Alexa, it can do more. For example, with the voice tech set up, the robot can control smart devices like lights, speakers and thermostats, as well as create reminders. And Vector can update its skills and features by connecting to the Cloud via Wi-Fi.

More Than Meets the Eye

Not long after the acquisition, Digital Dream Labs realized Vector “was so much more than a robot,” according to the company’s CEO, Jacob Hanchar, Ph.D. He said they received hundreds of emails and letters from users touting the robot’s ability to provide mental health support.

Some customers claim the device helps people with Tourette syndrome and autism. Hanchar, a neuroscientist by profession, also mentioned that it helped an army veteran deal with PTSD.

“It became obvious to me that you can essentially use this as a support robot. The key thing is that this thing doesn’t judge you.”

Pioneering Peer Bot

Digital Dream Labs plans to pursue FDA approval for Vector’s use as a peer bot — a mental health assistant that helps alleviate loneliness, depression, and PTSD symptoms. If they receive approval, insurance companies could possibly cover Vector-related costs.

Peer bots are an extremely new field. So, there are no real competitors, according to Hanchar.

“The FDA doesn’t know how to define peer robots,” he said. “We’re pioneers because not a lot has been established. And, we’re working with The FDA as partners, to come up with criteria and define the process.”

They’re currently in the pre-examination stage and plan to file for approval within the next two months.

Vector has approximately 200,000 active users worldwide. In the near future, Digital Dream Labs plans to allow users to use Vector without the cloud server. Also, Hancher expects the robot to function as an open source app store, where users can write programs to install directly onto the device.

The “World’s Cutest Robot”

Whereas Vector functions independently, Cozmo, which WIRED once dubbed “The World’s Cutest Robot,” relies on apps to run. The pet-like, AI-powered gadget aims to help kids and adults learn while having fun.

“It’s a fantastic product,” Hancher said. “It helps elementary through high school kids to master coding and robotics.”

Cozmo uses games to help users learn how to code. And, it requires a compatible iOS or Android device and the Cozmo app.

The Cozmo community consists of about two million customers globally. And according to Hancher, Cozmo demand has led to hundreds of thousands in back orders.

Scary Smart Toy Cars

Overdrive, a self-driving race car kit, which Goren describes as “Mario Kart in real life,” also has about two million customers around the world in addition to AI robots.

With the use of an app, multiple users can control their cars while racing each other. You can put up to six cars on a track, and each car has its own “battle weapon.”

Each player can control their car’s speed and weapon use, as well as switch lanes. And if a car gets bumped off the track or turned backwards, it’ll find its way back or turn itself around, respectively.

Witchcraft, you say? Not exactly. Each car scans the track, and the scanners help it memorize the track layouts and boundaries.

Goren said that Digital Dream Labs plans on “fixing a lot of things that current users want,” such as new cars, improved batteries, and more advanced game play. And, he hopes to partner with more brands to license the use of their characters. Currently, Overdrive has a Fast & Furious edition.

Building Bridges to the Future

Digital Dream Labs, whose name was inspired by the classic sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, stays busy funneling Anki’s former customers to their websites.

“We’re building a bridge to get everyone over here,” Goren said. “Some don’t even realize Anki’s out.”

But, the company’s up for the challenge of continuing the products’ legacies and shaping their futures.

“They see that we’re listening [to their feedback] and see how we use it. So, they ‘re so happy that we’ve taken care of these products.”

Jenni Choi is a Columnist at Grit Daily based in Austin, Texas. Her reporting focuses on social enterprise, social impact tech, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in media & entertainment. She founded the mission-driven company Moving The Needle LLC  to help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in media & entertainment. She previously wrote for The Baltimore Sun and The Baltimore Sun Media Group. Afterward she completed an M.S. in Social Work (concentrating on social enterprise and international social welfare) at Columbia University, fulfilled her dream of moving to the West Coast, and worked in communications and fundraising for nonprofits, before transitioning to the tech world. She helped launch the Women Techmakers membership program, part of Google's global initiative to empower women in tech and consulted for early stage startups. Jenni also enjoys serving as an advisor for the nonprofits Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) and Global People's Summit.

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