We're an absolute sucker for anything robotic, especially if the price is equal to, or less than, the coin of the realm that happens to be gracing our wallet at the moment. The situation is even worse come the holiday season since its way too easy to rationalize a robot impulse purchase as a Christmas gift to ourselves.
So, as you might have already guessed, we picked up a few inexpensive robots at the International Robot Exhibition (IREX 2007) held here in Tokyo last month. The simplest, and cheapest, was the Bandai HexBug.
The HexBug comes fully assembled, and with batteries already installed - at least here in Japan - and sells for under USD$20.
Resembling a miniature terrarium, the robots packaging is clean and makes it easy to see and understand what you're purchasing. It's also amazingly simple to unpack and start playing with, unlike some other robot products whose packaging required wire cutters or other special tools.
The robot is controlled by a single circuit board using just a few components. Sensors include dual front mounted whiskers that detect contact with objects to the front, or left/right sides of the robot. A small microphone sensor is mounted to the rear of the robots torso under one of its wings.
The robot "walks" on six legs - three on each side - that are powered by two small motors that drive the legs using a unique linkage arrangement. Surprisingly, the simple locomotion system allows the robot to walk forward, backward (a few steps), and to make left and right turns.
For example, the robot will normally keep walking forward. But, when one of its whiskers detects an obstacle, it takes a couple steps backwards using just one set of its legs which causes it to turn slightly. Then it moves ahead again, repeating the process as necessary to avoid the obstacle.
It follows a similar process whenever the onboard microphone detects a loud noise. All of the necessary instructions are printed on the outside of the robots package, though the sound detection diagram appears to be a little deceiving since it shows the clapping hands in front of the robot while the microphone is actually located to its rear and pointing in the opposite direction. Here's what it looks like in action:
Given its limited functionality, and zero expandability, the robot isn't for everyone. It does make an excellent conversation piece though. We keep our robot sitting on the desk at work where it is frequently picked up and played with by people that happen to stop by during the day. The HexBug comes in a wide range of colors.
Pricing and availability will vary. It's readily available, and quite popular, here in Japan. We have seen US references to the HexBug online at prices starting as low as $9.