Anki Cozmo And Code Lab Review - Virtual Pet Meets Teacher's Pet

A brilliant toy and an even better educational tool.

Virtual pets have been a fascination for decades, taking various forms throughout the idea’s infancy. From video games to robots and everything in-between, we’ve been fascinated with building our own virtual versions of the real thing for decades now, and Cozmo is quite possibly the most advanced virtual pet you’ve ever seen. Anki sells it as so much more than that though, and the recent free Code Lab expansion proves that Cozmo can be as educational as it can be fun. Is Cozmo worth the $179 MSRP? Let’s take a look.

Video Review

What's Included, What's Not

$179.99 gets you either the regular white and red color Cozmo, or a limited number of Collector’s Edition Cozmo’s are available in a Liquid Metal finish. Our review unit is the Collector’s Edition, which only differs by the color. Inside each box is Cozmo itself, as well as 3 Power Cubes and a USB charging dock. Anki also provided us with the Tread pack, a $14.99 value, which includes four different sets of treads to change out (Osmosis Blue, Luminous Lime, New Dawn Yellow and Crimson Flame). Anki also sells a carrying case for keeping all of Cozmo’s components in one handy place, making it easy to take along for the ride. This retails for $29.99 and can carry cozmo, all three cubes, the charging base and any number of other things that’ll fit in the additional storage pocket. The case is rigid and tough, with custom molded spots for each item, and a soft cloth outside to help with wear and tear.

Cozmo and Power Cubes

Cozmo is certainly a unique looking little robot, sporting a tilting head up front, complete with a 128 x 64 resolution screen that typically displays its eyes. Below the screen is a small camera for seeing the world around, which is located in what appears to be his mouth, while a small speaker is in the top of its head. A power button with multi-color LEDs resides on top, and the charging pins are located underneath. Cozmo gets around via four wheels that are connected by rubberized treads, either red or black depending on which version of Cozmo you purchase. Cozmo is able to move around freely and quickly, and has extremely fast response times that are utilized effectively throughout many different games and activities. Cozmo can even flip himself over if placed on its back or top, but not on its sides.

Two arms on each side are connected with a single bar up front, and two hooks towards the front enable Cozmo to pick up the power cubes with ease. The arms move high enough to bring the front bar just over his head, or low enough to touch the rubber base to the surface he’s rolling on. The power cubes look similar to something out of the hit game Portal, and feature notches on all four sides that enable Cozmo to pick them up.

Up top you’ll find four different multi-color LEDs, and rubber grips are found on all corners to keep the cubes steady on a surface no matter which way it's oriented. Power Cubes are one of the primary ways that Cozmo interacts with players, and help create the basis for a significant number of games and activities along the way. Because the LEDs up top can change color at any time, Anki has designed a number of games around matching these colors in various ways.

App and Setup

Everything connects via the Android or iOS Cozmo app, which utilizes the WiFi Direct connection on your phone rather than Bluetooth. While Bluetooth is good for some types of connections, WiFi Direct can control far more in the same range, and provide much wider bandwidth that’s needed to adequately power Cozmo and control all the Power Cubes. Setup is generally simple, with on-screen prompts that will get you connected to Cozmo in a matter of seconds in most cases. Since Cozmo connects via WiFi instead of Bluetooth, some phones (like the Google Pixel) require you to confirm that you’re OK with being connected to a WiFi hotspot that doesn’t have Internet access. Until this is confirmed you won’t be able to connect to Cozmo, which led to a bit of frustration on my part initially.

Everything is controlled through the app, although Cozmo will still move around freely for a while after the app has been disconnected. The app itself is more of a set of instructions rather than the brains of Cozmo, as it provides all the tools necessary to receive messages from Cozmo, input your name, and see the status of your robot friend’s needs. This of course is the place where you’ll change settings or choose a game, as we’ll cover below. Cozmo delivers status messages through the app, and will let you know what it wants to do, whether it’s pounce on your finger, drink from a power cube, or play a game. You can also find real time status of what Cozmo is thinking and doing at the bottom of the screen, and friendly, context-sensitive music is played throughout the experience.

Gaming and Personality

Cozmo is, by design, a playful and inquisitive creature, and this nature extends to the various games and activities built into the Cozmo app. As a virtual “pet” of sorts, Cozmo has a number of needs that need to be met on a regular basis. If Cozmo has been bumped around a lot, it’ll need a tune up, which consists of following a rhythm of arrows to “recalibrate” three different parts of Cozmo. Cozmo runs out of “energy” after a while and needs to be fed, which is done by shaking one of the power cubes and placing it in front of him to drink from. Lastly, Cozmo loves to play. This third need is the most commonly requested one from the little robot, and ultimately what makes up the bulk of caring for it as a virtual pet.

Cozmo will automatically explore his surroundings and let you know what he would most like to do, although you can always initiate a specific game or way to interact with him. Anki has created an AI algorithm that feels very natural to a pet-like creature, and Cozmo will regularly roam around finding things to do. Occasionally Cozmo will get the hiccups, ask to play a game, stack cubes and even recognize faces, calling out the name you’ve associated with each face. Anki has also built in ways for Cozmo to recognize dogs and cats, changing its behavior to better interact with actual biological house pets in a way that’s different from human interaction.

Cozmo’s eyes and quick movements truly make him feel alive, and you’ll notice this feeling especially in younger children, who quickly take to him as an actual pet. My 4 year old son, for instance, loves to pet Cozmo, feed it power cubes and play games with it, not to mention mess around with Cozmo by shaking it around (which makes Cozmo dizzy), or put him on his back and watch Cozmo flip itself over. Just about everything Cozmo does feels organic instead of robotic; it’s really rather impressive. Using a combination of gyros and the camera on the front, Cozmo can tell what’s going on around him, but his programming somewhat limits the actual things that can be interacted with.

Most games involve the Power Cubes in some way, as they’re easy for Cozmo to lift, and the multiple colors of the LEDs on top of each cube are simple ways to interact with humans. There are plenty of other games that don’t require the cubes though, such as finger pounce, or chasing around a laser pointer too. Cozmo originally shipped with a little over a dozen different kinds of games, with each game containing different levels of difficulty, or variations on the rules. Anki’s Code Lab update brings another dozen or so to the table, and since launch of the update, Anki has added more on a regular schedule too, with plenty more to come.

Some games are more challenging than others, but for the most part, this is better suited to children when considering levels of difficulty. In fact the Code Lab’s update proves that Anki has made as much of an educational tool as much as it has made a toy, furthering the idea that Cozmo is best suited to children, although it’s not exclusively designed as so. Anki has built a personality into Cozmo that’s all its own, and the playful nature of Cozmo certainly seems to best match itself with a child’s demeanor. In fact you’ll find very similar traits to children in Cozmo’s behavior; throwing a tantrum sometimes when he loses, audibly carrying on if he didn’t score the point against you in a game, and so on. It’s rather funny to see these traits on a little robot, and all of them combine to make Cozmo feel more like a living, breathing creature rather than a robot made up of 300 tiny parts.

Code Lab

Code Lab might be the single most brilliant thing Anki has done for Cozmo, and it all just launched recently too. In December 2017, Anki updated the Cozmo app with a whole new way to interact with Cozmo, by matching up visual programming tiles to create your own behavior for the little robot. Anki packed in about half a dozen new games and activities with the initial update, and since then has delivered a few new modes, and has at least half a dozen more scheduled to debut over the coming weeks and months. Within the Code Lab section of the app you'll find all the new modes of interaction, just like the games and the rest of the app. There is one big difference though; you can see exactly how each mode has been built by clicking on "see inside."

Clicking on a mode will bring up a detailed info screen, and from here fledgling programmers can enter into the edit mode to see exactly how Anki programmed Cozmo to behave as it does during each game. Players can then change up the programming and save it as a "remix" version of the original, or just study it and get great new ideas for their own new modes as well. Programming is done via visual blocks, each representing typical programming language in many ways, which will help young and new programmers better understand the basics of programming, no matter the language.  It's not all just free-form sandbox programming though. Anki also provides dozens of different challenges that ask you to program Cozmo to perform a certain task, or set of tasks, and then give you the answer if you're stumped or just want to make sure you get it right.

Since syntax and structure are such important parts of actually learning how to program, Anki's design is an excellent way to help learn how to order commands and understand programming design, all without having to fuss about learning exact commands and keys. Programming can be done on any device that runs the Cozmo app, although tablets will have a marked advantage here simply because of their screen size. While it looks just fine on phones, the block programming language certainly translates better on a larger screen, as it's just plain easier to see and manipulate the blocks and the order that they go in. Simply put, it's one of the most brilliant moves we've ever seen from a company when it comes to expanding the functionality of any product.

Battery Life and Maintenance

When considering battery life for something like Cozmo, you’ll need to take two things into account. The most obvious one is the battery inside the Cozmo itself; a non-removable battery that’s charged via the included dock, which plugs into any available USB port. Cozmo’s battery life is long enough that it will surely outlast your phone’s, which is the second part of the equation; you’ll need a smartphone that connects to Cozmo, running the app, and with enough battery left to power the experience for a while. Bonus points if the phone has good speakers to deliver the thematic music while playing, although this of course will drain your phone’s battery slightly more as well. As it stand it’s not likely you’ll be using Cozmo for more than an hour or so at a time unless coding through Code Lab, and then it’s extremely likely the phone will die before Cozmo does anyway.

Still, Anki rates Cozmo at around 90 minutes of constant play time per charge, and around 30 minutes to get a full charge when using a high powered USB port. Most modern phones ship with a USB wall charger that will charge it this quickly, and using something like a computer’s USB port will likely take longer. Cozmo’s charging dock is a simple drop and go affair, with large pins that almost never need to be lined up in order for it to charge. Cozmo will light up to show it’s charging, and this is also the easiest way to get Cozmo to display his WiFi info to connect for the first time, or in the event you need another phone to control it. There’s no real maintenance to speak of, and Anki says all of Cozmo’s 300 parts have been drop tested and rated for regular use. Anki offers a warranty for servicing Cozmo in case something happens, but you’ll need to make sure Cozmo has been purchased in a supported country for that.

Final Thoughts

An absolutely brilliant toy and an even better educational tool, Cozmo is packed full of enough brains and fun to last for a very, very long time. Younger audiences will marvel at Cozmo’s realistic behavior patterns and fun games, as well as learning to take care of a pet in a failsafe way that only a virtual pet can. Older kids and fledgling programmers will find Anki’s Code Lab to be a brilliant way to understand programming concepts with the easy to use visual programming language, and the additions that Anki has brought to the table since the launch of this free update in December have been nothing short of amazing. It’s not cheap, but it’s certainly one of the coolest toys in recent memory.

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