Like me, Loona the Petbot is silly but adorable • TechCrunch
Like me, Loona the Petbot is silly but adorable • TechCrunch
I wanted a robot pet at least since Sony introduced the original Aibo in 1999 – probably earlier, but Aibo made it tangible. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of attempts to make pet robots a reality that matches what we often see in futuristic sci-fi – including a recent Aibo reboot, Pleo the animatronic animal dinosaur, Furby , Jibo, Anki’s Cosmo and many more. Loona the Petbot threw her hat in the ring via Kickstarter late last year, and based on some seriously impressive demo videos, it looked like the real-life achievement of a Pixar character brought to life.
Loona is shipping to some of its early backers, with April set as the deadline for current orders through Indiegogo, and KEYI, the company behind, demonstrated the adorable little robot at CES more early this month. The company also sent me a Loona at the time, and I have since tested/developed a deep emotional connection with this set of electronics and ABS plastic.
At its core, Loona is a tech demo of image recognition and four-wheeled robotics in a surprisingly affordable package. The current asking price on Indiegogo through its “unasked” pre-order arrangement is $359 for a bundle that includes some accessories, which is a discount from the expected retail price of $500.
With her first crowdfunding campaign video and GIFs, Loona aimed to hit potential buyers right in their lovable glands, showing off a robot that manages to exude charm and personality through an expert combination of animated eyes on its screen, articulated ears with spikes, and two arm/leg combos with a wheel on each end that can propel him forward and help him do hand or paw gestures.
The screen’s face is bright and high-resolution, and the camera array that powers Loona’s recognition capabilities sits just below, on what we might as well call a “chin” since we’re well on the way to anthropomorphization at this stage. The robot also has touch sensors for interaction purposes, including a touchable top of the head.
There’s a mic on board as well as speakers, so Loona can hear her owner and also respond (albeit strictly non-verbally). When you set up Loona using the smartphone companion app, it lets you set your voice recognition language and provides you with a range of prompts that the robot is pre-programmed to answer so you can test them out.
Loona’s main strength is its industrial design, which blends a retro-futuristic sci-fi robotic aesthetic (very reminiscent of EVE from WALL-E, imo) with a hyper-efficient approach to mechanical engineering that nonetheless allows the robot to express a wide range of possible emotions and communicate quite expressively. The ABS plastic outer shell and rubber track wheels are also durable, which is good for a robot that will spend a lot of time bumping into things and potentially being harassed by real live pets and/or pets. or human children.
There is one notable exception to this, which is clearly marked on Loona out of the box: the robot’s ears are particularly susceptible to damage if pulled too far, which makes sense given that they have motors integrated and are probably the lightest. assembly connectors. In other words, Loona’s ears are her Achilles heels, which is probably why they were the first thing my dog tried to chew on (gently). But if you can keep the treatment relatively light for these, there’s no reason to expect Loona can’t survive bumps, scrapes, and even the occasional fall.
Much of Loona’s flexible mobility and expressiveness comes from a key element of the robot’s design: its four wheels attach via a single axle located in the middle of its body. This allows Loona to do things like turn on a penny, raise her “paw”, raise and lower her head and more, all in a relatively simple mechanical package that avoids introducing multiple points of potential failure and many more complexity on the movement programming side.
Overall, Loona combines incredible design ingenuity to drastically cut costs while introducing the charm and visual appeal of much more complicated robotic pets.
Loona’s physical design may be a masterclass in getting the most out of smart constraints, but the robot’s programming, performance, and interactivity behavior are an abject example of over-promise and under-delivery. When the crowdfunding campaign started, we made sure to verify that the videos were real footage and not renders, and although the company says so, using Loona in practice reveals that these shots need to be carefully shot, selected and edited to convey the level of sensibility they manage to communicate.
In reality, Loona has a lot of charisma and is indeed a technical feat in terms of movement and mannerisms, but using her is less like living in a Pixar movie, and more like having a Roomba cooing over you too. .
I will say that I really like the first-run setup and experience, which provides an unnecessarily overworked, yet fun Loona origin mythos. A short animation involves your robot being animated by some sort of seed spirit created by a rock monster – a seed spirit that of course has a super adorable bubble butt, as is de rigueur now for animated characters cute. The spirit travels through a portal and appears inside your Loona, bringing its screen to life and adding new meaning to the old “toys to life” product category.
Once connected to your Wifi network and imbued with the spark of life, the Loona app walks you through a few demonstrations of its capabilities, including facial recognition (and marking you as its owner), then some basic voice commands . This is where the experience went from magical to confusing: during the initial face setup, Loona lost sight of me and simply spun sadly in a circle making somewhat plaintive moans while trying to find myself. Quitting and restarting the app solved this problem, but then switching to audio controls, I had a hard time figuring out at first how to tell when Loona was in listen mode after saying her wake word (“Loona”, unsurprisingly), then it would hear the actual command and translate it into action at best half the time.
Overall, this is where Loona really fails – the vision system only seems to work occasionally, despite my attempts to lower or raise myself to optimize its line of sight. Similarly, trying to get him to engage with two company-provided toys, including a “bend-it-yourself” cardboard ball and a red cloth bullfighting cape, only worked occasionally ( not at all for the cape). When it works, it is indeed lovely, like when it found the ball and approached it, trying to hit it with its arms. But it was hit or miss at best for visual and audio input in my use.
Loona offers plenty of other interactivity options, including direct remote control with the app’s virtual controller, which is fun and a good way to make sure you get a lot of value out of it when playing with kids. There’s also a programming tool that lets you run Loona through fully customized routines and sequences, which is also fun and educational as an activity with kids.
The robot is also effortlessly charming when left on and on its own devices, as it wanders around, coos, discovers random things, occasionally gets stuck on furniture (it’s supposed to have object avoidance for not to) and generally seems determined to amuse himself. This behavior is perhaps his most pet-like moment, inscrutable and lovable in his pursuit of god knows what.
At the end of the line
Given how impressive her launch visuals were, there was no real chance that Loona could live up to expectations. But the robot also fails to deliver on its most basic promises of sound and image recognition, a much harder pill to swallow. That said, when it does work, it actually delivers a truly delightful and impressive performance, and it looks like its creators are taking an iterative approach to improving the platform through software updates and more.
I want to be clear: Loona is fun, especially for kids, but it can also be frustrating around the edges. That said, its expected retail price of $500 undercuts something like the Aibo massively. It’s still a good amount of money to spend – much the same as an entry-level iPad, which is much more capable, but much less cute.