When it comes to robotic pets I still have my heart set on one day owning a Sony AIBO as I always wanted one when they arrived on the geek scene, but could never justify the cost. The Desk Pet TankBot is no AIBO; for a start it's a tank and not a dog, it's a lot smaller and far less intelligent no matter what the packaging blurb tells you. Oh, and it's nowhere near as cute either. But then again, a second hand AIBO (should you be able to find one for sale in good working condition) is going to set you back more than £1000 ($1500)whereas the TankBot is only £25 ($40). So what do you get for your money?
Available in a range of colours, I got hold of a dull grey TankBot for testing purposes which is the most boring of the options. Still, colour isn't everything, and considering the 'advanced optical sensing technology' combined with the 'autonomous obstacle avoidance and maze navigation' mode I was sure to be in for some fun. My TankBot came fully charged, although a quick top up can be obtained by simply flipping down the USB connector and plugging it into your laptop for a few minutes. I let the TankBot loose on my kitchen table in autonomous driving mode to start with, and while it did manage to avoid the large obstacles it detected (fruit bowl, candles, my hand) it was a case of EPIC FAIL as far as edge detection was concerned. By which I mean the edge of the kitchen table that seemed to have the same kind of attraction as a cliff top to a lemming. I had to save little TankBot numerous times as it rushed for the edge of the table in an attempt to commit desk pet suicide.
OK, so next up I tried the 'free roam' mode which, predictably, also involved much attempted robot cliff diving but also added some flashing eyeball lights at the front, much dancing around in circles and lots of strange noises reminiscent of a baby crying. Which just left me with the main reason I wanted to try a TankBot, namely the iPhone (or Android if you have one) smartphone remote control option.
This requires the use of a small widget dongle thingy that you plug into the smartphone headphone socket in combination with a iDeskPet Universal Remote app. Which is where the fun started, but not in a good way. My test unit was missing the dongle batteries, and it requires no less than three of the watch battery kind. Having sourced these, oddly not having any to hand in my office, I went about fitting them into the dongle. What a bad design this widget is. The battery compartment cover is held in place by a tiny screw, so small it requires one of those screwdrivers you use for tightening glasses to do up. Even then I found it simply would not find the thread and tighten the battery cover and had to resort to a bit of tape. Surely in this day and age, creating a simply 'click to close' cover is not beyond the ken of robot designers?
The remote control itself was fine, if a little basic, and produced by far the most fun I had with the TankBot which, at last, I could prevent from going into 'I wish I could fly' self-destruct desk diving mode. The trouble being that the fun only lasts for 15 minutes before the battery charge runs out and the thing needs plugging in again. That said, the fact that each different colour TankBot operates on its own frequency does make for some interesting options when it comes to multi-player racing and battling. If only they had guns...
All in all, the TankBot is a fun toy for a kid or a geek, but the lack of true autonomy in navigation and the highly limited charge time make it a gadget that will, I suspect, quickly become nothing more than a paperweight.
Take a look for yourself in this video of the TankBot enjoying itself:
Pros:Fun, iPhone remote control system, multi-player race option
Cons:Doesn't detect edge of desk, 15 minute run time
Summary:My late father learned how to drive a tank during World War Two, and I've always fancied having a go myself. So when I learned there was a desktop tank I could drive with my iPhone I thought it had to be worth a look. Unfortunately, although the concept is a good one the execution leaves something to be desired. It's got no gun, it happily drives off the edge of the desk at any given opportunity and runs out of gas after 15 mins...