Innovative toy packs a punch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

HOLLYWOOD TIE-INS, animated cartoons, a rock video - is this the future of Robosapien?

It is hard not to think so, after viewing a demonstration of what could easily be one of Hong Kong's most successful - and innovative - product launches ever.

Retailing at US$99, the robot that grunts, burps, passes wind and performs kung fu kicks has been flying off the shelves since its June launch. More than 1.5 million have already been sold, and the orders keep coming. They could easily surpass the 3 million mark next year.

'To get orders for 1.5 million [units] is not difficult,' said Eric Lau Tung-ching, chief operating officer of Hong Kong-based WowWee. 'But more than 90 per cent have already been sold to consumers. That's a totally different story. All of our customers have placed repeat orders for next spring.'

Roughly US$1 million was spent on development costs. Close to US$4 million was spent on marketing, US$3 million of it for television advertising in the key United States market, which has accounted for 60 per cent of sales so far. Europe comes in second with a 35 per cent share.

Robosapien features an amazingly simple design. Unlike other robots, which are made up of square shapes, this creation is based on triangular shapes, a concept that echoes nature. It has seven motors for the legs, waist and arms. It has an infrared data port, a sonic sensor and two touch sensors spread over six contact points: hands, toes and heels. It also has red LED eyes and yellow LED palms.

There are 67 functions with up to 84 pre-programmed independent motions. Because of its sturdy yet safe construction (there is nothing to choke on or get pinched by), it is suitable for everyone, from infants to senior citizens.

Three demo buttons allow young children (and the technologically challenged) to enjoy 40 seconds of pre-programmed antics, ranging from kung fu to dancing, sounds and gestures. Children in the six-to-10 years age range can use the remote control to command it to talk, pick things up and throw things.

Teenagers and adults can take advantage of cutting-edge technology to create their own motions. The robot can also be modified to be operated from remote locations, using a mobile phone. Locally, Robosapien is being sold at Toys 'R' Us for $699.

The brains behind the project is Mark Tilden, WowWee's robotics physicist. He was formerly with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) of the United States.

'The Robosapien has a seven-motor design that allows it to pick things up, walk forward and backward, and turn in place,' he said. 'No matter how you mishandle him, he will never fall over by himself.

'While most robots require gyroscopes and sophisticated computers, our guy gets by with the brain the size of a pocket calculator.'

Asked if he worried about others copying the design, Mr Tilden laughed. 'If anyone wants to knock this off, please let us know - because we'd like to hire them,' he said. 'Next year we plan to do for vision what we've already done for walking.'

WowWee's sales had been robust until 1997, when the toy business worldwide went into a tailspin. 'Up until then, 95 per cent of our products were produced on an OEM [original equipment manufacturing] basis for famous names worldwide,' Mr Lau said.

'Then business started getting tough as companies weren't willing to give you a cheque to develop OEM products. So we decided to develop our own.'

There were other problems as well. 'Before 1997, all of the manufacturers in China had certain advantages,' Mr Lau said. 'Labour, rental and materials costs were all very cheap. After 1997, everything went up at the same time that margins were going down.'

The first toy developed in-house - a remote control skateboarder - was an instant hit. MegaByte, a robotic dog, was launched in 1998. T-Rex followed in 1999. The first six models in the Animaltronics collection - an elephant, a crocodile, a gorilla, a lion, a tiger and a wolf - were launched the following year. More models have followed, and the line now comprises an assortment of 53 animals.

WowWee was founded by brothers Peter and Richard Yanofsky in 1982. It has 30 employees in Hong Kong, Britain, Canada and the US, 12 of whom are engaged in research and development.

'The key to our company's success is we never give up on research and development, We employ the most innovative and creative technology,' Mr Lau said.