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No two real dogs are alike. They differ in temperament, personality, and looks. It’s why we love them. Now WowWee thinks it can bring that one-in-a-million appeal to robot dogs.
Back when robot toys were a thing, their weirdness and proximity to the uncanny valley (opens in new tab) was often part of their appeal. Leading the charge was WowWee, which sold a succession of oddball robo characters from Robosapiens to Roboraptor (opens in new tab) that were all surprisingly weird.
But the robot fad faded, and interests shifted from physical to screen-based fun. Robot toys mostly disappeared and, in their place, arrived blind surprise toys (opens in new tab): often eggs you would buy sight-unseen, all for the opportunity of tearing them open to discover a collection of figurines and plush toys.
WowWee didn’t sit around watching the demise of robot toys, it shifted to things like the Fingerlings (opens in new tab) and Avastars (opens in new tab). It never forgot about robots but getting back in would require a shift in perspective: it couldn’t be expensive; it couldn’t be just another robot. The company ended up taking inspiration from two unexpected spaces: NFTs and blind toys.
The result is Mintid Dog-E, unveiled here at CES 2023 in Las Vegas. It’s initially a bland-looking all-white robot pup, but that dull demeanor is part of the toy’s genius. You see, no one knows when they buy the $79.99 ($99.99 in Canada) toy (in October) what kind of robot dog they’re getting. All the personality and life are hidden in sleeping motors, powered-down LEDs, cute folded ears, and a motionless tail that does something I’ve never seen on a robot dog before.
Unboxing and powering up Dog-E mints the pup for the first time, setting in motion the robot toy it will become. The ears unfold and light up, as do the eyes, chest, and paws. The custom combination of lights and distinct colors tell you what kind of robot dog you got, as the tail wags furiously. The latter goes so fast that the taillights (yup, I said it) use persistence of motion to spell out words and deliver Dog-E messages to you. In the prototype, I saw that motion produced a loud sound but WowWee execs insist that’ll be sorted by the time Dog-E hits shelves.
WowWee pairs Dog-E with an app (iOS or Android) where you can engage with the pup in Tamagotchi fashion, delivering treats, and food, and tracking things like hunger, happiness, and love.
The same app can also be used to remotely control the robot and glide it around on its wheeled paws. There may be a separate app to enable Dog-E’s STEM-based programming features where users will be able to map out a series of robo-dog actions.
Still, in my brief interaction with Dog-E, I found that it didn’t need any remote management. It responded to touch and would lunge forward in excitement. It barks and makes other noises and can hear your voice, too. I could pick up Dog-E and its plastic tongue would pop out of its head and ‘lick’ my face.
As part of the one-in-a-million dog concept, attributes like the tongue will be customized. Different colored tongues might indicate a rarer Dog-E find (gold will be ultra-rare). The app will tell you what kind of dog you have, but you can also glean that through Dog-E’s engagement. A chihuahua, for example, will move much more rapidly than, say a Bulldog.
While you may mint and develop your Dog-E for yourself, you can use the app to mint multiple robot pups in one Dog-E. Switching the profiles (up to 11) will result in different Dog-E pets. WowWee even imagines that a child might if they don’t like the robot friend they ended up with, remint their Dog-E.
Dog-E will ship with what looks like a sock chew toy. It has a built-in squeak toy that, when squeaked, will stop Dog-E in her tracks. The magnet will pair up with a magnet in Dog-E’s nose so it can start tugging on and playing with it. In the prototype I saw, the nose was a button, but that may change by the time Dog-E ships later this year.