Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bossa Nova Robotics Introduces Two New Products

I know nothing about robotic toys. Nevertheless I was invited to a presentation two days ago at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute where Bossa Nova Robotics, a CMU spin-off, presented their new Prime-8 and Penbo toys. The toys took many years and product iterations to complete because Bossa Nova's surveys indicated a $99 or lower price point and transforming the intricate technology (hardware and software) to match that price was the primary reason for the delay. Both toys are mobile, interactive, vocal, and have a repertoire of games and remote control options. Penbo, a fuzzy penguin-like robot, sings, dances, cuddles and communicates with her baby, which she carries in a front compartment. Prime-8 is more vigorous with loud sounds age-appropriate to his 8-12 year old comrades (he even farts!).

What attracted me to the Bossa Nova launch was the science and the process -- but what sells toys is entirely different. The science in this case was CMU and DARPA's RHex, a six legged robot capable of multi-terrain exploration and patterned after the locomotion of the cockroach where the legs adapt to various terrains faster than the neural system.

Bossa Nova Concepts has taken CMU's multi-million dollar HRex research and developed it into a bi-pedal product (instead of the original six legs) and reduced costs to a toy's pricing ($99 retail). They raised funds from Innovation Works, Wellspring Worldwide, Eckhart Seamons and The Technology Collaborative and took four years of intensive research to come to market with their first products. Describing the technology and process were Bossa Nova's CEO Martin Hitch and co-founder Sarjoun Skaff. Bossa Nova provided the engineering and design and Jetta Manufacturing, a Chinese rep based in Hong Kong, is providing the product and packaging.

But that's where science and value engineering leave the scene and kid psychology, focus groups, and marketing enter. The toy industry is changing dramatically with video games leading the way and expanding expectations. Although robotic toys are holding their own, they too have to continuously find "cool" from the research labs and entrepreneurs that take technology and transition it to the streets and into households, literally letting people experience robotic technology at an affordable price.

Bossa Nova attempted to build a single toy utilizing their new bi-pedal locomotion technology only to find that boys and girls had different expectations and needs. Younger girls (4-6) wanted a touchy-feely interactive device that was cuddly and appealing; slightly older boys (8-12) wanted their toys to be interactive, action-oriented and physical. Girls didn't care about remote control or autonomous operation; boys did. Thus Bossa Nova had to come up with two different products and two unique marketing schemes with the sole common denominator of the bi-pedal locomotion system.

I researched the net for similar or competing robotic toys and found the Robini-i to be somewhat similar in audience and capabilities to the $99 Prime-8. The Robini-i is already selling in the international market for $249 and the South African company Robonica will have products in US stores this September; Prime-8 will be available July 25th from QVC and shortly thereafter online from Amazon. Femisapien, a WowWee product, $59-$99, has worldwide market penetration and appears comparable but not as fuzzy and cute as Penbo which will sell for $69 and be available from QVC mid-August and online from Amazon about the same time.

We were encouraged to have a hands-on experience with Prime-8 and Penbo during the presentation. A man and his son (who appeared to be about 7 years old) walked through and stopped to watch us play. The boy watched and smiled. Somebody offered him the remote controller for one of the Prime-8s and he began to explore and play. He smiled and experimented and periodically looked back at his father with a happy look and then continued playing. At some point, without apparent signals from his father, after about 15 minutes of play, he handed the controller back to an adult, grabbed his father's hand and they walked away. From my minimal experience with toys and kids, he passed the 2-minute test with flying colors!

Preceding the product demo was an intro to CMU's Robotics Institute by Director Matt Mason and a tour of one of CMU's three research labs which house over 500 researchers. In the one we were at on the main campus (the lab was recovering from recent flood damage), were CMU and Astrobiotic's entry into Google's $20 million Lunar X Challenge, a robotic apple and orange picker, and various other works in progress. CMU's Robotics Institute is a spin-off from CMU's Computer Sciences Department which, coincidentally and adjacent to the Robotics Institute, was completing construction of a sparkling new complex to be named the Bill Gates Computer Science Center.

From a business point of view, entering the toy industry is a tough proposition; not for the weak at heart. I've read that the robotic toy segment of the toy industry is anticipated to grow to over $11 billion by 2015 with the majority of sales driven by children's robots. Further, robot toys are what most kids wish for (especially boys). Nevertheless, it's a tough task to get shelf space particularly in a down and price-driven market. Johan Poolman, President of competing robotic toy start-up Robonica says: "Technology has played one of the biggest roles in altering the play patterns of children – technology products that don’t address the modern infatuation with anything PC and online will be unlikely to have the staying power to break through the short term fad barrier." Harder still is the process of transforming expensive robotic technology into colorful, interactive and low-cost devices that children want to play with. Bossa Nova Robotics seems poised to meet those challenges with their two new products and their ambitious plans for the future.