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Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!
This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
iRobot Roomba s9+
We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward
Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
DJI Mavic Mini
It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Cubelets Curiosity Set
Photo: Modular Robotics
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
Photo: Franklin Robotics
Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
“How to Train Your Robot”
Image: Lawrence Hall of Science
Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
MIT Mini Cheetah
Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading
Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?
Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.
By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.
Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.
Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.
Image: Masahiro Mori
The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.
In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:
I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.
Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:
One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:
“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”
Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.
Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR
Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.
Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2
Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.
“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”
3. Geminoid HI
Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro
Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images
Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.
5. Anthropomorphized felines
The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.
Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?
Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.
Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:
Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.
Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.
“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”
How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.
To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.
For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”
But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading