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Bossa Nova's Sub-$100 Robots Move Fast, Birth 'Bebes' (Hands-on)

We stopped by Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh last week to get a sneak peek at a couple of new toys from Bossa Nova Robotics. The upstart company hopes it has found a niche in the toy market with Prime-8 and Penbo, which are inexpensive consumer robots spawned from multi-million dollar robotics research at the university's Robotics Institute. "We have democratized robots," co-founder John Fegali told us at the demo session.

Let's start with Prime-8. It's a rough and tumble robot for boys that resembles a gorilla -- if a gorilla were bright yellow and sped around with arms that rotate in a complete circle. As co-founder and chief operating officer David Palmer said: "One thing that never seems to go out of fashion is action and dynamic toys." That's hard to argue, too. Folks, this robot can move, and move fast, thanks to a a bi-pedal design that transforms into a locomotive system when it gets on its hands (which are wheels), making it glide across the floor at much the same speed as an RC Car. It also doesn't require sensors to guide it across the ground (sensors give the illusion of intelligence, but they tend to slow robots down). Instead, Prime-8 is operated with an infrared controller that is fairly responsive, though we did notice some precision problems during out time controlling the bot.

Prime-8 has different 'emotions' -- if he's happy, he farts, but if he's angry, he roars and glows red. He also plays a number of games (including shooting toy rockets at, say, someone's little sister) and synchronizes with other bots (we watched as co-founder and chief technology officer Dr. Sarjoun Skaff made three Prime-8s do identical dances, but shhh, that's not advertised on the packaging). For $99.99, Prime-8 has a lot of features packed into its compact body. That said, the maing thing that really sets apart this toy from other mass market robots, like Robosapien, is its combination of wheels, two 'legs,' and it's ability to put on some speed. We haven't seen a bot on the market that moves as fast as Prime-8.

Then there's Penbo--a furry pink penguin that oozes cute and waddles upright using the same technology as Prime-8. As with the baby-dino robot Pleo, Penbo is autonomous and isn't operated with a remote. Instead of action, it focuses on nurturing. Touch its heart, and the stomach opens to reveal an egg that contains a fuzzy little 'BeBe.' You can remove 'BeBe' from the egg, and Penbo communicates' with it in a number of ways. It might rock the baby to sleep or play hide-and-seek with the offspring. According to Fegali, it took some hard work for the team to really get in touch with its feminine side and decide what features to use on Penbo. "It's actually really difficult to build a robot for girls," he said. After plenty of market research and some one-on-one conversations, the Bossa Nova team says it discovered that girls wanted a more interactive and nurturing experience with a bot, as opposed to Prime-8's action-packed design (what, girls don't like action?).

Penbo is a little bit cheaper ($69.99) than Prime-8, but it doesn't seem to 'do' as much as either. During our time with the bot, we just sort of patted its head, listened to it 'sing,' and watched it waddle across the floor. Plus, it's just so darn cute, with those big eyes, that it's almost scary. Then again, we don't exactly think like a five-year-old girl. Maybe Penbo will keep them distracted for hours on end? What do we know, we're action-junkies.

Prime-8 will be available via QVC on July 25, and Penbo will debut in mid-August on the shopping channel. However, you can find both on starting August 1. In a market that has lacked a 'must-have' product since Furby, Bossa Nova might have a hot-seller on its hands, if for no other reason than it fills some previously unaddressed voids: Designing a robot for each gender is certainly a smart move, we think, and personally, we can't wait to get our hands for more time on both of them.

Bossa Nova Robotics

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