The Japanese arm of De Agostini, an Italian-based publishing house known for magazines that drip feed buyers model components on a weekly basis, has chosen something a bit different for its latest offering. Instead of the traditional model car or boat, the company is letting subscribers build their own robot. After 70 issues, which cost JPY¥1,990 (US$25) apiece, buyers will have a fully assembled Robi that stands 13.4 inches (34 cm) tall and weighs just 2.2 pounds (1 kg).
Robi was designed by Tomotaka Takahashi of ROBO-GARAGE, famous for creating beautifully designed miniature humanoid robots. If Robi looks familiar, you may have seen Takahashi's earlier work: Chroino (selected by TIME as one the coolest inventions of 2004), and Panasonic's EVOLTA battery mascot (which climbed the Grand Canyon, completed Le Mans, and the Iron Man Triathlon), as well as the body of the original Zeno.
Although the idea may seem strange, and the final cost of about $1,750 is slightly more than what one can expect to pay for competing hobby kits of this size, De Agostini has already succeeded with this approach with an earlier publication, where readers assembled a ROBO-XERO hobby robot kit (also sold separately). As with other De Agostini model magazines, bundling the parts with a weekly magazine spreads out the cost of producing the robot and is designed to make it more attractive to prospective hobbyists.
Thanks to an embedded speech recognition board made by Raytron, Robi can understand more than 200 Japanese words applicable to daily life. For example, it will respond when its name is called and welcome you home. In one example, a woman preparing pasta asks Robi to activate its timer for five minutes – Robi dutifully begins counting and, once the time has passed, it pipes up like an alarm. Microphones in its ears are used to detect the location of a speaker, and it will turn its head towards them automatically. Its mouth glows red when it speaks (the actual speaker is behind the red part on its chest), and it expresses emotions through gestures and changing eye color. Different personalities will also be available to change how it interacts.
It can stand up on its own, walk, dance, and more, thanks to 20 joints actuated by Futaba servo motors. Different play modes are available, such as kick ball, which allow more than one Robi to interact together. Robi has a built-in IR emitter in its forehead so that it can function as a universal remote – it can turn the TV on and off, change the channel, and adjust the volume on command. You just need to apply the settings beforehand (and note that it may not work with sets from manufacturers). The blue scarf around its neck serves as a handle for easily picking up the robot, which also prevents damaging its servo motors.
Tedious programming and even a PC are not required, as Robi has been designed for everyone from children to adults. For its brain, it uses a microcontroller built by Vstone, an Osaka-based robotics company that sells its own line of hobby robot kits. When its batteries are getting low, Robi will let you know that it is "hungry," at which point it will sit in its little chair, which serves as a charging station. Readers will also get a clock shaped like Robi's head.
The magazine will cover five main areas. It will highlight the latest technology trends, with Robi introducing products (such as new robot vacuum cleaners). Tomotaka Takahashi will appear in a regular interview, describing his design philosophy and discussing the future of robotics. Another section will profile famous robot stars from science fiction films, anime, and manga, such as Astro Boy. The final two sections will educate the reader on the various bits and pieces inside their robot, and detailed assembly instructions.
Note that Robi does not come equipped with a camera, so it won't be capable of face or object recognition. It also lacks the a sophisticated processor and has limited onboard memory, so don't expect it to do anything too complicated. You can see more of Takahashi's wonderful robots at the ROBO-GARAGE website, and see Robi in action in the video below.