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Romo: The cute robot with an iPhone for a brain

Romo is a toy with a purpose: to teach kids (and adults) some programming concepts while they're having fun. The US$149 robot uses the power of your iPhone or iPod touch as its brains and face, and the result is charming and educational. Not only can Romo be used as a fun toy, but also as a telepresence companion. Read on for details, and then enter our giveaway of a Romo.

Romo started out as a Kickstarter project in November of 2011, and quickly received over 350 percent of its funding. A second project in November of 2012 was designed to bring the design up to a sellable format -- the incarnation that you can now purchase.

Specifications (without device attached)

  • Dimensions: 3" high x 5.6" long x 4.5" wide (7.62 x 14.22 x 11.43 cm)
  • Battery: 2000 mAh NiMH, good for two hours of use
  • Requirements: iPhone 5/5s/5c or fifth-generation iPod touch (Lightning version), iPhone 4/4s or fourth-generation iPod touch (30-pin version). iPhone 4s or newer required for telepresence capability.

Design Highlights

The Romo robotic base is incredibly well-designed. There are two tank tracks that are used to propel the base and turn on a dime, a light inside the back of the device to indicate that it's connected and to express "emotions", and a tilt mechanism that holds the iPhone or iPod touch to allow Romo to "nod" or look around.

That base looks like it could put up with a lot of abuse, which is what it will most likely receive if used by kids. That's a good thing -- the last thing most parents will want to do is have a $150 toy break after a week. I drove the Romo around (both with the telepresence app and through its programmatic interface) a lot, smacked it into walls and other objects, and it still looks good as new.

But it's the Romo app that is the star of the show here. The app is free, and as you'll see in the functionality section of this review, it's used to tell a story and help Romo's owner to progress through a series of challenges to learn how to program the device.

Romo is about the cutest robot you'll ever see. In the storyline, he's a being who comes to Earth and takes up residence in your iOS device. He wants to participate in some races, but needs your help to learn how to do things. That's where the learning part of the app comes in, slowly but surely building up skills from a pre-programmed set of motions until you string those items together.

During the entire time, you're getting feedback from Romo in the form of beautifully-animated facial expressions and fun noises. If you're buying this for a child, make sure that they can either read a little bit or that you're there to read some of the story and prompts to your child. The programming is done with icons, so once the child gets the hang of what each icon does, they can take it from there.

Functionality Highlights

Romotive really worked on making this product easy to learn, easy to use, and fun. Once the user has gone through a few lessons, additional features are added in one by one. Very quickly, you have the Romo reacting to your face, chasing colors (it has some built-in facial and color recognition capabilities), following pre-programmed courses, and more. It's an absolutely blast to play with, and I'm saying that as a 56 year-old!

One of the more intriguing possibilities of Romo is using it as a telepresence companion for the elderly. Each Romo can be "called" via a special six-digit number, either from the free Romo Control app or from a page on the Romotive website. Think of giving an elderly relative a Romo, perhaps with an older iPhone permanently installed. You can call your relative's Romo, move the device around to find them, and then have a conversation with them. Of course, they would have to remember to plug in both the Romo (it uses a USB to micro-USB power connector) and iPhone every day...

That big image seen above is the Romo-eye view of the chair I'm sitting in, while the image on the right is what shows up on the Romo screen for viewing by the remote person. I can send my video or have the Romo make faces. The pad allows me to control the Romo in four directions, while that "white ball" on the left side adjusts the tilt of the Romo so it can "look" up and down.

Some of the more fascinating things include the chase game, in which you take something brightly colored, wave it in front of Romo until its "face" turns the same color, and then it follows that color around. This was really fun with a small basketball I had -- I let Romo recognize the orange color, and then it actually ended up pushing the ball around and following it wherever it rolled.

As an educational toy, Romo is absolutely wonderful. By stringing together various actions, kids (or adults) can get Romo to do a lot of different and amazing things, and Romotive is constantly adding to the capabilities with free upgrades. There's even an SDK for developers who want to write iOS apps for the Romo platform; I can't wait to see what they come up with in the future.

Each lesson is done through a "mission", which you then have to figure out how to program through the use of some simple actions. Once Romo runs the mission, you're given a score of zero to 3 stars, with three stars being a perfect score. The idea is to get three stars on every mission to prove your understanding of the basic commands. Missions are assigned to a "planet" -- there are planets for the chase game, for learning how to drive Romo, to get Romo to tell you its favorite color, to recognize a human face, and more. The more you achieve with Romo, the more planets are unlocked.

The Lab is a planet where users get to try out all of the commands you've learned by just playing. You can string the various commands together to get Romo to do some pretty bizarre and fun things. While most of the missions are quite rigid in what they allow you to do with Romo, The Lab gives users a chance to really see what Romo can do.

I like the fact that the battery life is so good on Romo. I was able to putz around with the little robot for slightly more than the two hour battery lifetime, and I think most kids would get bored before running the battery completely dry.

Is there anything else I'd like to see? Well, my hope is that Romotive is working on a second-generation Romo that would include a grasping arm or some sort of way of picking up objects. Then it would be possible to program Romo to wander over to a bowl of candy, pick up a piece, and deliver it to my desk ... a truly worthwhile task!

I'd also find it interesting to see if Romotive or a third-party developer can use the M7 motion controller chip in the iPhone 5s to provide some additional capabilities to the little robot. For example, have Romo be able to tell just how far it has gone (based on acceleration and velocity) and stop or perform another action once it's gone that distance.

Conclusion

Whether you view Romo as a toy, an education toy, a fun gizmo to play with, or a movable telepresence robot, it excels in every aspect. The application that controls the robotic base is whimsical, educational, and a heck of a lot of fun. If you're a parent who wants your child to get a head start on learning the basics of coding, or if you're just an adult who likes fun toys, Romo's well worth your $150.

Rating: 4 stars out of 4 possible stars

Giveaway

Who would have ever thought that TUAW would be giving away a robot someday? Well, we are, and you have the opportunity to win a Romo worth $149. He needs a good home, which means that his owner will follow the giveaway rules:

  • Open to legal US residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter, fill out the form below completely and click or tap the Submit button.
  • The entry must be made before January 14, 2014 11:59PM Eastern Standard Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • One winner will be selected and will receive a Romotive Romo (Lightning adapter) valued at US$149.
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.



Romo is a toy with a purpose: to teach kids (and adults) some programming concepts while they're having fun. The US$149 robot uses the...