Keep on dancing
From lab to shop
Predicting the next big thing is always a precarious business, especially when identifying toys that'll cause quite the stir in the run-up to Christmas. From Pokemons to Igglepiggle, everyone wants to cash-in during the lucrative period.
This year's must-have toy may well have origins in the world of academia. Dreamt up by scientist Hideki Kozima seven years ago, Keepon Pro, a $30,000 robot, has been designed to engender and promote social interaction for autistic children. As Ashlee Vance of Businessweek has eloquently written: "Kozima theorized that an emotive robot could help autistic children, who can be overwhelmed in face-to-face interactions, by reducing the complexities of communication to a few simple gestures. A child pats the robot on the head. It responds with a playful bob. The child talks to the robot. It turns to face him and nods."
Keepon Pro, the little dancing robot, is already something of a YouTube sensation, where a video uploaded by robotics expert Marek Michalowski, working alongside Hideki, has almost three million views. You can see it bob, weave and generally have a good time to the beat provided by indie band Spoon's I Turn My Camera On.
The story of how this $30,000 robot may soon become this festive season's hottest toy now moves on to Richard North, managing director of toy manufacturer Wow! Stuff. Understanding the potential that lay in a cute, albeit expensive, research robot that could be reimagined as a significantly cheaper toy, North and his team spent 18 months in research and development, to bring the spirit of the Keepon Pro to a toy that'll sell for $50 (£39.99).
Introducing My Keepon
Aimed at children aged six upwards, rebranded as My Keepon and ready to infiltrate must-have Christmas lists, the 10in-high robot's provenance is what differentiates it from other toys.
Powered by eight AA batteries that are good for six hours' usage when in full-blown dance mode, My Keepon is sensibly equipped with an inlet that enables you to power it from the mains, though we don't know at this stage whether the finished product will have said adapter bundled in.
Looking cute and finished off with a rubbery body that's tactile and very grippy, My Keepon has an array of 'under-skin' sensors which, in touch mode, react, through movement and sound, to pokes, pats, squeezes or tickles, while a bottom-mounted speaker emits R2-D2-like beeps every time My Keepon moves. Yet it also likes to dance. Flicking over to this mode by pressing the left-hand dance button located at the base, the little fellow uses a built-in microphone that listens out for the beats underscoring music, and using technology trickled-down from the original Keepon Pro, the itty-bitty robot dances in rhythm to each song.
But because each song's beats are different, My Keepon's moves are commensurately distinctive, and, through some clever programming, even playing the same song again results in unique movement. And it's this lack of repetition that's My Keepon's main selling points. You don't even need music to get it jiving; clapping works just as well.
Perhaps difficult to appreciate through words alone, here's yours truly having a quick play with My Keepon.
Born from a serious science experiment, My Keepon's heritage means it's one of the more novel toys to grace the market during the festive period. Well-built - it withstood a 20-minute heavy-handed session from a child - responsive and unique, My Keepon is an interesting toy that offers something new.
My Keepon is currently on pre-order at Play.com.
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