Technology

Robopanda: Headed for Extinction


1228_robopanda
Editor's Rating: star rating

This animatronic panda is a real bear to unpack and operate, and the toy doesn't offer young kids much playful interaction

Hong Kong toy company WowWee bills its new Robopanda as an interactive playmate that lets kids hear stories, play games, and engage with the animatronic bear by touching sensors on its body and paws. It's an intriguing pitch. But the toy's slipshod construction, repetitive programming, and arduous packaging made me want to ship this panda back to the preserve.

WowWee's stock in trade is cyborg-like toys that combine aspects of man, machine, and beast. Among them are a robotic dragonfly, an eerie singing Elvis bust, and Robosapien, an android that can walk and grasp objects. Robopanda, priced at $150, is the latest addition to the lineup, and like other WowWee toys, it features expressions and behaviors that users can trigger by touching it or moving it through space.

But getting this panda to sit up or stand often resulted in the toy toppling over, an outcome likely to frustrate the children who make up the toy's intended audience. (WowWee recommends the bear for kids age 8 and up.) Playing with the panda can get tiresome—its litany of stories and games prompt kids to make choices by touching a paw or foot, but beyond that, there aren't many other means for interaction. The toy's spoken instructions can be opaque; how many children are likely to decipher Robopanda's hint that "you can upgrade my memory using the cartridges"? And parents likely won't be any happier with the cumbersome and sometimes perilous setup process.

Setup Is a Real Trial

Removing the toy from its box required unwinding tightly wrapped wire in 11 places, untangling it from the toy's joints, then slicing through five sharp plastic tabs to free the Robopanda and its companion teddy bear from their imprisonment. Crudely applied tape at first obscured most of this tangle from view. A bit more attention to packaging would save much cursing and brow-dampening for the unlucky parents who have to open the box.

That's just the beginning of the setup ordeal. Installing the toy's 10 batteries requires removing and then retightening six small screws on the panda's back and feet. The instructions aren't much better. Playing with the toy requires inserting one of two program chips and moving a switch in back to one of three different "play modes," a process the manual describes on page 4. But figuring out just what those modes are ("training," a panda-led guide to features; "friend," story-telling mode; and "menu," an inexplicably named game-playing routine) requires flipping ahead to pages 9 and 10.

An Unstable Bore

Once I got all the batteries and the chip installed, I gave Robopanda's storytelling and game-playing modes a whirl. The black-and-white plastic toy stands 19 inches tall and has touch sensors in its paws, legs, belly, back, and head. Robopanda can tell whether it's picked up or put down and registers vocal responses to its questions. It even occasionally pitches forward and crawls on the floor when it's feeling exploratory.

But I found Robopanda's transitions between sitting and standing awkward; the toy often fell when it was supposed to change positions. And its interactive stories often ask little of the listener. For instance, as Robopanda tells of his experience traveling to China in a crate to visit other pandas, I was prompted merely to touch a paw to indicate I wanted to continue. I could imagine smart kids quickly tiring of the routine. Overall, playing with this panda proved to be a real bear.

Ricadela is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in Silicon Valley.

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