Animating the Future: Meet the Cartoonists Giving Life to Anki’s Adorable Robot, Vector

How techniques from animation and video game design are making robots feel more human — and not in a sinister way.

Vector is a home robot with personality.

When Mooly Segal started taking odd jobs animating mechanical demos for engineering companies, he didn’t think of it as particularly exciting or important work. His real interest was in creating cartoons and video games, which he went on to do at Electronic Arts, working on games like The Sims. He didn’t realize at the time how relevant this industrial experience would become later in his career.

These days, as the animation lead at Anki, Segal merges robotics and cartoons to pioneer a whole new genre of entertainment tech. The result is Vector, a sci-fi-inspired home robot now live on Kickstarter.

Vector does weather reports with dramatic flair.

Vector can tell you about the weather, look up facts, or set a timer while you cook, but he isn’t like other voice-activated home tech. While Alexa and Google Home are built for utility rather than personality, always responding in the same neutral tones, Vector feels like a helpful robot companion out of Star Wars. He recognizes you, calls you by your name, gets excited when you come home, and gives you fist bumps. All this is brought to life through a novel blend of animation, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and motion-sensing hardware.

Anki founders Boris Sofman, Mark Palatucci, and Hanns Tappeiner met at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics PhD program in 2005 and have been making consumer robotics products ever since. Their mission is to approach tech from a human angle and tap into why we get excited about intelligent creations. Their first product was Anki Drive, an exhilarating AI-controlled race car with moves that felt right out of a video game. But for all the impressive engineering that went into it, they realized that they’d need help to achieve their next goal: creating a robot that felt like a compelling, interactive creature.

Segal came on as Anki’s first animator in 2015 to help build Cozmo. This robot toy for kids was the team’s first personality-driven product, and its development deeply informed the creation of Vector. Segal used Maya, a common software in studios like Pixar and Dreamworks, to create a range of cartoony expressions and movements that are programmed into the robot’s reactive “emotion engine.” If you start playing a game with Cozmo, his eyes light up to show he’s happy. If he loses, he gets sulky. Cozmo was a hit: the toy completely sold out over its holiday-season release in 2016.

By that time, Anki was already developing Vector’s more sophisticated voice recognition, face detection, and direction-finding technology, giving animators more leeway to construct dynamic reactions. And it was around then that Dei Gaztelumendi came on board from Paramount to be a character designer.

Internal mood board slides that helped set the tone for Vector’s demeanor.

Character designers “take an idea and visualize who the character is, what they look like — the introspective work,” Gaztelumendi explains. He wanted to make a curious, exploratory character that would showcase Anki’s advanced sensing capabilities and appeal to both adults and kids. “Because this was going to be another beast, technologically speaking, with all the inputs and stimuli coming in, we wanted to showcase that as much as possible.” He started exploring who Vector might be by making mood boards of George Lucas robots and exotic pets like sugar gliders and parrots.

Vector is a playful robot you don’t have to play with all the time.

The team rallied around the idea of creating a personality that is genuine instead of clownish, curious rather than cloying, and cheerful but not cheesy. “Cozmo was this mischievous rebel of a robot with a knack for entertainment and fun,” Gaztelumendi says. Because Cozmo was made with less sophisticated tech, he was designed to be switched on and fully engaged in play. Vector can just hang out; he’s comfortable roaming around your coffee table, occasionally piping in with an interesting interaction. “Vector is a robotic creature whose natural habitat is your home. He’s not putting on an act or singing and dancing. What’s cool about him is his genuine, instinct-driven behaviors, made possible with this amazing technology under the hood.”

“It’s almost like the difference between a telenovela and a really good movie where you believe the actors, you feel their emotions, and you relate to them,” says Segal. “Cozmo was the first time we ever tried this combination of animation and robotics. It was a more crude attempt at applying the 12 principles of animation to the new technology we had.” (The 12 principles of animation, developed by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, is the cartoonist’s bible; it’s filled with commandments to squash, stretch, and exaggerate.) “I had to figure out how we take the process we have from animating feature films and games to make this new thing. With Vector, now we feel more comfortable with what we can achieve.”

Vector animations are created in Maya—standard animation software—and then linked to hardware triggers.

In contrast to the simple sequence of animations he’d make for a movie, Segal has to create animations for Vector that anticipate the whole range of the robot’s possible interactions. “Maybe you’re gonna pick him up. Maybe you’re gonna tell him to go somewhere. We don’t know. So we need to address whatever can happen. We need to be able to respond to that.” The technical term for this is “nonlinear animation”: the team codes reactions into decision trees, which determine how input (seeing you, sensing a bump, hearing his name) will trigger various personable reactions (saying hello, scooting away, making heart eyes).

An animation reel of scenarios and reactions Segal created for The Sims.

It’s similar to Segal’s experience making The Sims, the computer game in which players guide characters through relationships, careers, and other everyday activities. But the possibilities are much more exciting in robotics. “Vector can look at your face and I can see he’s making eye contact and code his action towards that person. It’s not to a general screen like in a game,” Segal says. The same is true of touch. If you pet Vector, he purrs. He knows when you pick him up and put him down. “It’s a relationship between you and the robot, which for me is incredible. These are opportunities that I never dreamed of animating.”

Many roboticists are interested in making lifelike machines, but having passionate animators on the team brings an extra set of creative approaches to the table. “Animation is not just a profession — it’s being a certain person,” Segal says. “It’s something that you have in your bloodstream.” He sketches interesting characters he sees on the street, recreates funny cat videos his teammates share, tests new hires for storytelling skills, and pores over emotional expression research.

Gaztelumendi is the same way. “I’ll often raise my hand and say, ‘Uh, I don’t think Vector would do that!’” he says. “And probably in any other company doing machinery or robotics, that’s a silly thing to say. But Anki cares about that sense of presence and sense of being.” The end result is a very likeable robot.

—Katheryn Thayer

Vector is live on Kickstarter until September 7, 2018.