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.
Mark Tilden said that he was influenced by Rodney Brooks while he was attending Waterloo University in Canada in the 1980s.
One of the books that Rodney wrote was called ‘Fast, Cheap and out of control”
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!”
The V2 could track and distinguish among different colors by using what was called a “radial retina”.
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.