Verbot: The worst toy robot you really really wanted for Christmas
Back when I was something like 8 years old, I was into computers and robots and all the nerdly things that would foreshadow my career in tech, and I spotted it, over $60 then-dollars for a toy robot with a bunch of functions, and it was voice controlled, how cool was that?
Short version: it wasn’t. It did not work as advertised.
Verbot, made by the venerable Tomy Toys, had 8 buttons on his front, each of which could be held down to learn a verbal command: Turn Left, Turn Right, Go Forward, Go Back, Lift a thing, Drop a thing, “Smile”, and stop moving.
Let’s start with the fact that it took 4 AA batteries (for the microprocessor), two C batteries (for the motors, which were always-on), and a 9V battery (for the microphone). In 1984 dollars, that was like $10 a play, right there. If that doesn’t scream “designed by committee” I don’t know what does.
If you tried to program a command that was too long, or too short, it wouldn’t remember any of the command. (Deletion, not truncation).
If the commands were too similar, it would get them mixed up, so the manual suggested that you not say things like “turn left” and “turn right” but instead, “rotate right” and “spin left”.
To be clear, it was just storing the exact waveforms that had been transmitted to it, and then comparing those waveforms when a command was sent. The microphone was always-on, there was no push-to-talk button (that might have reduced the background noise and possibity of erroneous commands).
I played with the thing maybe 3–4 times, and never once did it manage to obey all 8 commands. It would either do nothing when commanded, or do a completely unrelated thing to the thing I was asking. And when you’re trying to get an 8 year old to calmly repeat commands that the robot had heard over its internal motor noise (and it was noisy), and becoming ever more frustrated, being more angry, yelling, even crying…you can see how this is a recipe for failure.
At one point, I decided that it must be user error. It simply could not understand me. Thus, if it was controlled by tones, that I’d use another toy, a music player called the Magical Musical Thing, to generate short command tones for it, both in number of notes, but also in cadence and pitch (ascending, descending): perfectly generated, every time. I felt pretty clever with that solution.
That didn’t work either.
The manual suggested helpful things like making an obstacle course for it, and fun games like that. There was just no way. It would be like trying your cat to make you a gin and tonic. It seemed feasible, mechanically, but the processing power just…was not there.
Now, if they wanted to make it a real learning toy, they could have made the controller removable, so that you could slot it into the robot, or have it control some LEDs or a fan or something, akin to Capsela or Lego Mindstorms or something like that. The thought of “kids who are interested in robots might want something extendable and hackable” never ocurred to them. I mean, hell, 20 years later, the people who made the Roomba would out-of-the-gate make a hackable version that people who want to spend $300 on a shitty vacuum would be willing to spend more money on, just to expose the ports and the underlying code.
If they wanted to be useful, they could have made it so that the entire thing didn’t reset when you turned it off, or even made a mode so that you could turn it off but it would remember state as long as it had batteries in. (It already takes 7 batteries, what’s one more CR2032?)
If they wanted to be useful, they could have added a way to learn three versions of the commands, thus increasing the likelihood of a successful match.
I still don’t know what hardware it was based on, to this day, but it was…pretty much terrible.
In the end, it sat on my shelf as a cool looking “I own a robot and this is the coolest thing I can do with it, display it”, like putting the box for your copy of Duke Nukem Forever on a shelf. It was literally more of a joy to not use, to serve as a remind of you got what you asked for, but not what you wanted.