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The robots walk among us

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Almost exactly a century after the term ‘robot’, was coined in fiction, the automatons have finally gone mainstream. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK meets a trio of humanoid consumer robots.

I first met Pepper the life-sized robot waiter at a conference in Hungary last year, and was smitten. As soon as he/she/it greeted me with the words, “Hello, human”, I was captivated. However, I knew it would be many years before I would meet my new friend in a local restaurant.

But what about Pepper’s smaller relatives? What about humanoid robots designed for education, entertainment and service in the home, office and school? Back then, they seemed just as distant. But suddenly, they walk among us.

It was almost exactly a century ago, in 1920, that the term was first coined by Czech writer Karl Capek in his science fiction play, R.U.R. – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Since then, fiction has mostly treated these constructions as a threat to humanity. Now, the tide has finally turned.

Today, one can buy robots off the shelf, or online. It seems that only budget dictates the limitations of what the gadgets can do, say or sing. Here are some of the models I’ve recently tested, previewed, or encountered:

Cady Will

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If there’s such a thing as an entry–level for robots, this is the starter model, but you’d have to go online to bring it under your control. It costs a mere $42 from Gearbest, although shipping adds $14, but for a total that is still under R1000.

For that, you get an “Intelligent combat robot with multi-control modes”.  These modes include sending instructions via a handheld remote control device,  touching its head, shaking its body and – most startling of all – gesture control. While that is expected in higher-end robots, it is rare to find a gesture sensor in a budget robot.

The clue that this is about fun rather than education lies in the word “combat”, but Cady Will accepts rudimentary programming. One can set sequences of movements, sounds, and actions, ranging from walking and sliding to dancing and singing. This means that, even while used exclusively as a toy, it exposes one to the principles of basic programming.

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This doesn’t mean one needs a thinking cap for engaging with Cady Will, though. The remote control is clearly labelled, with instructions like Right hand Up, Turn Left, Speed Up, Dance, and Music.

You would quickly get tired of hearing it perform Gangnam Style but, in reality, it is more of a demo of the moves the robot can make.  It comes with a set of missiles that can be launched from one hand, while the other sports a “laser cannon” that is probably going to scare a good few pets.

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Cady Will probably personifies the phrase, “bang for your buck”. Buy it here:

https://www.gearbest.com/rc-robot/pp_924336.html?lkid=11958179

Alpha 1 Pro

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At the opposte end of the scale, a robot that is both taller and sleeker than Cady Will, Alpha 1 Pro, will set you back R8 499, or the price of a mid-range smartphone. For that, however, you get a delightful educational and entertainment tool. Controlled via an app – Android or iOS – it features numerous built-in modes, moods and content.

Yes, the obligatory Gangnam Style puts it through its dance moves, but then it features a collection of songs, an action-version of the story of Troy, and bedtime stories. If those aren’t enough, music can be played through the Alpha 1 via Bluetooth. Demonstrations of exercises, yoga moves and martial arts turn the robot into a coach and gym partner.

The key to a robot’s movements is its servo motors, and Alpha 1 packs in 16 high precision servos, and can rotate 180 degrees,

As with Cady Will, basic programming comes in the form of recording actions in sequence. However, true programming is also introduced, using a visual programming language called Blockly. One chooses a code module in the app and adjusts the parameters to program the robot to dance, demonstrate specific moves or go off on a secret mission.

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Manufactured by UBTech, it is dsitributed in South Africa by branded technology specialist Gammatek. For more information on Alpha 1 Pro, visit: http://gammatek.co.za/product/ubtech-alpha-1-smart-toys/

UBTech Cruzr

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At the distant high end of the scale, a corporate answer to Pepper has arrived in the form of Cruzr. It is described by UBTech as “a cloud-based intelligent humanoid robot” designed for both industrial applications and domestic environments. Taller than the average human, its key features include an 11.6” touch screen, flexible arms, facial recognition, video recording, navigational mapping, video conferencing, and surveillance capabilities.

That makes it ideal for anything from security to remote employee interaction and data collection. Combined with customisable artificial intelligence business applications, including big data analysis and question and answer libraries,  it also becomes a tool for collaboration, sales and customer support.

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A two-channel stereo speaker and a camera with depth perception rounds out the multimedia features. A sensor array in the head, along with one one Lidar sensor, six sonar sensors and 12 infrared sensors, make it not only good at aviding obstacles, but position the Cruzr as the state of the interactive robot art.

It has between five and eight hours active battery life and, best of all, when it runs low, it automatically returns to its self-charging dock.

Local distributors Gammatek doesn’t have pricing for the Cruzr, as it is individually customised and priced for corporate clients.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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