Ozobot seemed to impress a lot of people at CES 2014 last week, and I had to go check it out it for myself. Sure enough, when you first see the little critter scurrying around on the screen of an iPad or a giant Windows 8 tablet, it looks like something that might have cleaned the Jetsons' bathroom for them, probably while whistling or complaining loudly in an adorable little robot voice.
However, during my time playing with Ozobot, I failed to see why everyone, including its creators, seems to be marveling at its alleged intelligence.
Ozobot's one and only behavior is to follow thick, black lines. It's impressive that it can follow them on a screen just as well as it can on paper or other surfaces, and it can even transition between the two, if you line the path up correctly. And it can interpret a number of triggers in the form of symbols and colors on that line, going faster, slowing down, or turning around based on what it sees underneath it. It can also flash LED lights to communicate certain things to its users.
But that's it. No real thinking (that I saw at least), no interaction between multiple Ozobots, not even smart pathfinding—when it comes to a crossroads in the line it's following, it simply flips a virtual coin and chooses a path at random. That's fine in some of the activities and games Ozobot was showing off at CES, like one called Ozoluck in which friends at a bar might set the little robot scampering through a moving maze to determine which of them has to buy the next round.
But in other examples, like a multiplayer Pipe Dream-like game called Ozopath that we played on an iPad, the Ozobot's lack of actual smarts definitely gets in the way. In this game two players take turns placing lined pieces on a digital board in an attempt to guide Ozobot to a goal. As we played, I successfully blocked my opponent, Ozobot President and CEO Nader Hamda, from reaching his goal, while simultaneously creating a path to mine. But the Ozobot's random navigation sent it to a dead end instead of down the path I had created, stalling it (and the game) in its tracks.
Another of the Ozobot's four games on display, Ozodraw, was simply meant as a testing ground for drawing different paths—it was essentially Microsoft Paint with only one kind of brush. Ozorace was really the most impressive, since it demonstrated the Ozobot's ability to transition from a screen to a physical surface. With two Ozobots and a dynamic starting point on a tablet screen, you could have some fun with a friend or your dog (be careful though—I doubt Ozobot is chew-proof).
But that brings me back to my original point: that Ozobot is less a "smart robot" and more a simple, albeit adorable, interactive game piece. And the Ozopath game, where the robot got stuck despite having a clear path to its goal, betrays its limitations even there.
"The dream game for an Ozobot is this multi-surface game," Hamda told me. He imagines players using Ozobot to play classic board games like Monopoly and Clue. "Starting to introduce an intelligent game piece would be the way that we would see the board game morphing and becoming new and relevant again," he said.
"Ultimately I would imagine there would be something more that it can do," he continued. "I'm not really sure what that is, but it's a platform for board game developers to utilize, instead of using a pure tchotchke game piece—using an intelligent game piece."
He said they've also talked to colleges who want to use Ozobot in their robotics programs, and to specialists who think it could be a great tool for those with learning disabilities, particularly autistic children who enjoy more tactile toys.
The applications Ozobot showed off at CES may not have been very mind-blowing overall, but I got the impression that software and game development is not one of the company's strengths. And when Ozobot ultimately goes open source, other, more creative developers might be able to unlock its full potential.
"We're looking at this as a platform, and from here it can bridge into wherever it needs to bridge to," Hamda said. "It will be open source. We are deciding if it's going to be open source right off the bat, or if it will be open source just a little bit thereafter, but that's the ultimate goal—is to open it up for everybody to see where they can take it."
The company is launching a final funding push on Kickstarter today (Jan. 15), and Ozobot is scheduled to hit retail in June or July. They're hoping to raise another $100,000 in funding for production before then, and Kickstarter backers will be able to pick one up for $45, $15 off the normal price of $60.