Toy makers are coming up with more and more ways to encourage children to learn STEM skills, and Hasbro is trying to do that in a somewhat futuristic way. The company is releasing a $120 robotic dog toy called Proto Max as part of its Furreal Makers line of animatronic pets that children can customize via an app. To be clear, you’ll be tweaking this robo-dog’s behavior and character, not the colors of its eyes or fur or the shape of its nose or face. That initially sounded a bit too much like pet Westworld to me, but after a brief demonstration, I was persuaded to quiet my internal ethics police.
Proto Max is designed for kids aged six and older to learn the basics of how programming works, but even those who don’t want to deal with figuring out how to customize a robot can still play with it. With a dial on the side of Proto Max’s perpetually smiling face, you can pick one of three pre-defined personalities: "small," "medium" or "large." These affect the pup’s general temperament by adjusting the volume of its voice and how it reacts to stimuli. You can open the relatively easy-to-use iOS/Android app to assign more specific behavioral traits afterwards.
All told, there are 10 trigger points on the dog’s body, including its attached ears, nose, tail and two capacitive sensors in the patch of fur on its plastic back. You can set Proto to respond to interactions with those parts in a wide variety of ways by dragging and dropping reactions to slots on an in-app diagram of the robot. During a recent demo, I customized my pup to make a happy face when I stroked her back. Although I was already anticipating her reaction, I still felt gratified when she responded as I’d expected. Not only was her behavior endearing, but it was also rewarding to see that my customization worked.
That behavior is really what makes Proto so charming. Its transparent plastic body is not the best-looking, although Hasbro says that kids it studied liked seeing the toy’s insides. But I didn’t find this robot adorable just by looking at it; instead, much like my experience with real dogs, I was won over once it came to life and started responding to my touch.
There are plenty of ways Proto can react: moving around, barking (or making other sounds) and displaying different expressions on the 2.6-inch-wide LCD screen that makes up its eyes. The LEDs inside its mostly transparent body can also change color, in case you ever wished your robo canine were a different hue. In addition to defining one-time reactions to triggers, you can also chain a series of actions together in the more advanced-looking Code part of the app. This way, you can make your pup spin around, bark three times and flash a different color when you pet it.
Some of the triggers are a little confusing, though. The microphone input option, for instance, lets you decide what your pet does when it hears any sound, regardless of the volume or words spoken. You’re most likely going to leave that blank, because, as proven during my demo, having the dog respond anytime it hears a noise gets tiring very quickly. Hasbro told us that Proto doesn’t recognize specific words just yet. If it ever does, however, that would be a much more useful and realistic trigger. Imagine being able to decide what your robot does when it hears words such as "fetch," "nap" or "treat."
That’s where we cross over into slightly weird territory. The whole point of having a pet is enjoying its unexpected quirks (and, let’s be real: adoration). As much as I’d love to own a dog I didn’t need to clean up after, the idea of creating a pet that did exactly what I expect it to is disturbing, and I’d could see it getting boring over time. But Hasbro says that’s not really the point here; it’s to help kids discover and understand the thought process behind such toys.
If you think of Proto Max less as a pet replacement and more as a toy that teaches how things work, it’s a compelling product that could grow with your child. Hasbro plans to introduce games in the app to challenge kids to solve problems by coming up with specific actions for Proto Max, which would make it an even more useful teaching tool. Since Makers is a new range of programmable pets in the Furreal line, it’s likely the company will release more animal versions of Proto Max in the future, so cat or unicorn lovers can hopefully have their own franken-pets soon enough.