Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978



Fall 2017 Toys
Ages: 11 & Up
Manufacturer: Wonder Workshop
Price: $199.99

Cue, the latest robot from Wonder Workshop, is designed to appeal primarily to teens with its upgraded hardware and more sophisticated look than the earlier Wonder Workshop bots (Dash and Dot). Cue comes in a sleek black or a stylish white and allows a personal-feeling interaction through four channels in the Cue mobile app: Chat, Code, Create, and Control.

During initial installation, the user is asked to select a "hero avatar" to be Cue's primary personality: the classic superhero Charge, the sultry-sounding Zest, the snarky Smirk, and the exceedingly enthusiastic Pep. Players can install more than one persona, but at a cost of $4.99 per additional avatar.

In Chat, Cue recognizes natural language and attempts to respond appropriately using the installed personality. Cue can respond in text replies to numerous basic commands; there is a drop-down menu of suggested conversation starters, such as "Tell a joke," "Sing a song," or "Show me your colors." Generally the physical robot is synchronized to the chat (laughing at the jokes, flashing the colors), but often it seems to be sitting more or less idle while the conversation continues. And sometimes the exchange breaks down. (Human: "I like to draw." Cue: "What's it like?" Human: "It's fun!" Cue: "I think it's fun is a lot of things.") Our avatar had a couple of games in the chat, a word scramble and a text-based battle game, both mildly amusing but not particularly compelling in the long run. Ultimately we concluded that the chat was an entertaining novelty but not one kids are likely to use on a regular basis.

Control allows the user to steer Cue manually or to set the robot on Explore mode, making more-or-less random decisions about direction and velocity. Cue has both front and rear sensors that are quick to react; however, the bot sometimes had trouble seeing narrow items such as table and chair legs, and as a result would get stuck and require manual control or a physical extraction to recover. But the Control environment gives a hint of Cue's capability (not to mention its fine maneuverability) and allows users flexibly to position the robot for other operations.

Code and Create are Cue's programming environments. Create is a means of programming a graphical state-machine: that is, the programmer considers what inputs the robot will respond to at any point and what sequence of events to perform before returning to a resting state or moving to a new state. Programs typically have a beginning point but do not necessarily reach an end (unlike typical goal-oriented computer programs), instead cycling through states, much as an interactive robot is expected to. Create mode includes a few simple tutorials and a demo of an activity in each avatar (all four are available to all programmers regardless of the installed avatar) as samples of medium-length state machines. In addition to the tutorial and demos, users can write their own programs that perform any sequence of operations.

Code lets kids do object-oriented programming using either Blockly or JavaScript, even switching back and forth between the languages during coding; Wonder Workshop indicates that Apple's Swift programming language will be added as a third option in November of 2017, though this was not yet available for testing. For beginners, Code offers Adventure mode, in which players work with short programming examples to modify, debug, and interpret, learning the programming environment and how to work with the robot's inputs (buttons and sensors) and outputs (lights and sounds). There are also demos and plenty of room for open-ended coding. Code will be more familiar than Create to most experienced programmers; ultimately, both environments are capable of the same operations, so users have the opportunity to decide which is more appropriate for a particular task or outcome.

Like other robots in the Wonder Workshop series, Cue can be connected to LEGO-style bricks to allow more nuanced interactions with the environment. The brick connectors can be directed through Control, Code, and Create as well.

Apart from the demos in Code and Create, kids have access to the sound libraries only for their installed avatars, but they are free to create their own custom sound libraries, even giving Cue a completely unique personality if they are so inclined.

The Code and Create programming environments make Cue a very powerful tool suitable for both beginning robotics fans and serious programmers alike. Though the artificial intelligence is still somewhat limited ("Hmmm... I'm still learning," sighs Cue when a text is particularly baffling), there is hope that this will improve in future app and firmware upgrades. Cue is very much worth experiencing in person.

Emily Crawford   ©2017 Parents' Choice
Emily holds a BSE in electrical engineering and computer science from Duke University and a Master's in computer engineering from Georgia Tech. She is a homeschooling parent and lives with her husband, three children, five cats, and thousands of LEGOs in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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