Modern robot toy history could be said to start in the 1990s with the Wowwee company’s Robosapiens and other dolls and baby dolls in particular.
Robosapiens fascinated a whole generation of future robotoscists.
Realistic toy babies and animatronic babies that could move an arm or leg or ask for food always fascinate the kids. Two of the more interesting ones are the Luvabuls and Baby alive. But for now lets look at some animal or strange character type robot dolls like the Furtby.
FURBY History: (Hasbro/Tiger Electronics)
The Furby is an amazing small furry and lovable electronic pet that burst onto the consumer toy scene in 1998 and lasted for about 3 major toy change generations into 2013 and a relaunch in 2016.
It was first created by a group of 2 guys David Hampton and Caleb Chung and then licensed and made a success with the third guy Richard Levy. David had dabbled in electronics his whole life and eventually landed a job in Silicon valley and at Mattel toys where he met Caleb. Caleb did not have a great background in electronics but was known to be a free thinker with no mental boundaries.
Caleb worked hard at Mattel and had found his niche in designing toys and focused on that and his family. In this very inspiring and moving documentary on Youtube directed by Greg Green about Caleb and the Furby called “Whats your story Caleb Chung?” we are given a very touching look at a gentle man who loves his electronic toys as his own children and appreciates all that life has offered him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPhEWIreoxk
Now the birth of the Furby idea came when Caleb and David went to a trade show in the 90s and saw the tiny electronic toy called the Tamogachi. They went back home and decided to make something bigger that you could actually pet and they tentatively called it Furball. The languages it spoke was a combination of Asian words and sounds that Hampton learned over the years in the navy.
Richard Levy was working in the film business for years and became a film producer ad creator of a major satelite corporation but also had a passion for inventions and marketing. He met David and Caleb and went about making a licensing deal for the Furby with Tiger ELectronics in 1997.
Hasbro shortly after purchased the Tiger corporation and then in 1998 they put a huge amount of money towards promoting and producing the Furbies. In late 1998 they took Furby to a New York Toy show and had orders for over 30,000 Furbys and then sold about 4 million in the rest of that year and 14 million in 1999.
About 40 million were sold in the first 4 years.
It was a fad so the sales lagged and a new generation came out in 2005 which didnt sell very well but it did have some great electronic and cuddly features.
Chung admitted that many people found it to be too realistic and that it sort of broke that unwritten “uncanny valley” rule that if some robot looks and acts too realistic that people will find it weird and creepy.
In 2012 the third generation of Furby came out with many more amazing electronic features including a personality that could change depending on how you treated the Furby. The original one in 1998 only had one simple personality.
In 2013 a new smaller version came out called the party rocker and then one called the Furby Boom which was quite a hit. This one had much more powerful abilities and could remember its name and new personalities and some funky furry color schemes.
Furblings came out in 2014 and were made to play better if you had them along with a Furby Boom.
Then the furby connect came out in 2016
ROBOSAPIEN History: (Wowwee Toys)
The Wowwee Toy companies flagship product the Robosapien was the brain child of robot designer extraodinaire Mark Tilden.
Most reports say that the Canadian brothers Peter and Richard Yanofsky moved to Hong Kong in 1982 and started the Wowwee toy company and was inititally an independent research and manufacturing operation. In 1987 they started developing toys under their own brand.
A bit about Mark first. He was born in the UK in 1961 but came to Canada when he was two years old and went on to build his first simple robot out of pieces of wood when he was just three years old.
Much later, he attended the very well known tech hotspot in Canada the University of Waterloo.
Mark later got a job where he devopled basic robots at the Los Alamos lab for years and had a stint woking at NASA but found that the work was not satisfying a need that he had .
While he was working at Los Alamos in 1998 the connection with the Wowwee toy company owned by Peter Yanofsky and Mark first happened. Peter saw Mark on a tv show “Robots Rising” that year and shortly after got Mark to work on a part time consultant basis with Wowwee.
Around 1998 Wowwee was sold to Hasbro and the preliminary work done on the Robosapien continued but Hasbro did not think that the product could be a commercial success so after some money losing time, Peter bought the Wowwee company back and carried on work with Mark.
Sometime around here or 2001, Mark had moved out and was living in Hong Kong and all the development efforts were to take place there until the product launch of the Robosapien in 2004.
In 2003, there was a team of scientists in Shenzen working on the Robosapien with Mark including Edward Chan, Ariff Cheng, Dickson Fong and many more.
The day of the media launch they had 12 of the robots do a dance that Mark and Chan had rehearsed many times in the offices over the last year. The crowd loved what they saw and at the launch they were overwhelmed with orders and were putting out 5,000 a day from their factory.
It was said that they sold over 1.5 million of them in the first 5 months of sales and sold for about $100.
Now the Robosapien was promoted in the advertising materials as “the robot that thinks its a human” and it came with a wireless infrared remote control with 21 buttons which had 2 shift buttons so it could do 67 preprogrammed robotic sequences.
It would put on a very entertaining demo performance if you didn’t have the remote. It stood about a foot tall and with its black and white plastic body it looked like a robotic wrestler and made grunting sounds and belching and fart sounds which were actually Marks own recorded voice!
It was an analog design which means that it did not have a microprocessor in it but used conventional electronic components that he said could easily be found in a junk pile of electric gear. It only had 7 motors in it.
His pioneering philosophy is called BEAM which stands for Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics and Mechanics. He believes that analog circuits produce contiuous waves unlike digital technology and that they allow mechanisms to mimic the pendulum dynamic of the ways animals move.
The Robosapien had a battery life of about 20 hours under continuous use which was incredibly good efficient battery use for the time.It had 3 modes with the colors red, orange and green and many found the orange mode to be the funniest.
When it turns off or turns off by itself it will say the word “rosebud” which is a tribute to the famous movie “Citizens Kane” directed by Orson Wells.
The only other human voice statements it made were at successful start up it would say “uh huh” or if unsuccessful would say “nuh uh” and it would say “ouch” at appropriate or inappropriate times. Yes it did make crude noises a lot which the boys always loved! Girls…not so much:)
You could program in a simple way by todays standards by using the remote to enter sequences which were called macros or mini programs and they would then be sent to the onboard chip and excecuted.
In 2005 Wowwee released the Robosapien V2 (RSV2)and it was massive….standing at about 1.5 feet talll and weighing several pounds more than the earlier one! It cost about twice the price of the original $100 one.
It had more features of course including a wide range of preprecorded human speech.
It also came with a few accessories like 1 green ball and bowling pin.
RSV2 had twice as many motors (13). needed a lot of batteries (4 c cells in each foot plus aa cells)
It had many features like
- color recognition for r/g/b and the presence of a person
- it could detect sound like claps with stereo microphones to sense audio
- could detect things in its grippers
- the limbs were controllable (feet, hands,arms shoulders)
- 2 visual sensors
- 28 hour battery life
- a form of AI that reacted if you put your hand in front of its face too slow
If you put your hand right up to its face it would react and make a statement and move back in a funny way.
He liked the bowling ball and would act like a child and say “gimme gimee”.
It could say several other funny things like “look at the size of that!”
Unfortunately, after a few years many of these versions developed rotting wires and due to the heaviness of the unit it was quite easy to crack the hips. There are people on the internet wo specialize in repairing the wiring and other things to keep your vintage robosapien v2 in tip top shape.
Wowwee came out with a handful of Robo related robots in the next several yers.
There was the Roboraptor in 2005, Robopet 2005, Roboreptile in 2006 and the RS Media (a newer version of the Robosapien but with a linux operating system) in 2006, co-developed with Davin Sufer and Maxwell Bogue).
There was the Roboquad in 2007, the Roboboa in 2007, and their first female robot that they made the Femisapien in 2008.
There was an even “sassier” male robot called Joebot in 2009, and the floor-cleaning robot called Roomscooper in 2010.
ROBOQUAD History: (Wowwee Toys)
The Roboquad came out in 2007 and was basically a version of a Mars craft that Mark had worked on at JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) years earlier.
He had many sensors and could wander around autonomously like a watchdog but you could also maneovere it with its remote control.
It looked like an electronic crab with 4 pinsers and a tall head with camera eyes on it and was virtually guaranteed that young kids would torment the pet cat or dog with it!
It was quite a complex toy with almost each setting of the remote having 4 varying complexity levels and behaviours.
It was not easy figuring out how to operate the controls for any of these toys for many people so many people would just set them to demo mode and be satisfied to watch these weird robots do their preprogrammed routines for a minute or so.
There was always something amazing to most people to see a blinking, noise making toy of any kind wander around the kitchen floor acting proudly like it was the new boss in the house!
There were 72 preset funtions and 5 scanning frequencies and 40 programmable moves.
It could react to noises by whipping around its head when you clapped your hands and it could be placed in guard mode where it would wander around your room looking for bandidos or the no good for nothing house cat.
The 4 legs swivelled around and it could walk backwards, forwards and sideways like a crab.
Its head would swivel around like a terret on a submarine and had a look like something from Star Wars.
It had 4 motors 200 programmable functions along with ai, autonomous movements and different moods.
2008 FEMOSAPIEN History:
A smaller curvy female version of the Robospien called the Femosapien came out in 2008. It had 5 motors and needed 6 batteries and were more efficient with their use.
There was talk of selling it with clothing but it turned out that if it had clothing then it would cost more at the border because it would be classified as a doll.
OPTIMUS PRIME History:
This $700 robot came out in April 2021 to much excitement and fanfare!