Toy Story

'If you wake up on Christmas morning and you haven't got Robosapien under the tree, your parents don't love you.' Susie Mesure discovers how a 14in robot battled Barbie and beat the Beanies to become this year's must-have gift
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is not an ordinary toy story. Robosapien is no Buzz Lightyear. No, the 14-inch apotheosis of every schoolboy's fantasy is this year's Buzz Lightyear, Tinky Winky and Furby rolled into one.

This is not an ordinary toy story. Robosapien is no Buzz Lightyear. No, the 14-inch apotheosis of every schoolboy's fantasy is this year's Buzz Lightyear, Tinky Winky and Furby rolled into one.

In the six months since his UK launch, this walking, semi-talking robot with attitude has become the talk of toyland. He has cameoed on Top of the Pops, guest-starred on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, sat on the sofa with Richard and Judy, and busked his way round Covent Garden collecting money in a plastic cup. He has picked up more gongs than The Lord of the Rings, stormed into the top 10 Christmas toys of every present list and won just about every other international toy award going, from Hong Kong to Italy. As Jonathan Ross has put it: "Kids, if you wake up on Christmas morning and you don't have a Robosapien under the tree, your parents don't love you."

It's the stuff of parental nightmares: the must-have toy has already been flying off the shelves. Until a few days ago, half of Hamleys' fourth floor was devoted to Robosapiens; today, just a small tableful by the stairs is left. Shah, an employee, tells me I'd better move quickly if I want to buy one. "They'll all be gone this week. And I can't guarantee we'll have any more stock in." Meanwhile, the catalogue retailer Argos can only get its hands on half the number its customers want. "I keep asking where my stock is, if I'm the UK's biggest toy retailer," wails Terry Duddy, Argos's boss.

Robosapien's mission to become the Christmas number one began five years ago when Peter Yanofsky, founder of WowWee, one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the US, spotted a scientist called Mark Tilden on the Discovery Channel. The British-Canadian inventor was demonstrating something called "nervous network" technology, which he'd developed to make robots that could navigate Mars. Yanofsky persuaded the former US government boffin to down his tools and come to work for them in Hong Kong. His challenge? To use his robotic know-how to give a toy an artificial IQ - with a battery for its heart and "nervous net" technology for its brain.

Getting Robosapien right took the former Nasa scientist two years of solid graft, climaxing in a three-week, round-the-clock building session at a brain conference in Canada. The first Robosapien was made out of the various bits of plastic and wire that Tilden could scavenge from the local hardware store. But he was pleased with the result. "Every other robot looked like Pinocchio on life support, compared with my guy." But, despite initial enthusiasm, the concept of the remote-controlled android wasn't an instant hit: the toy corporation Hasbro passed on it. Some 1.5 million Robosapiens later, Hasbro must be weeping. WowWee had to go it alone.

Grabbing the coveted number one Christmas toy spot has been no mean feat. Robosapien's success in toytown has hinged on the ability of his distributor, Character Option, to pump up his profile. First, he has had to elbow Barbie out of the top 10 for the first time in living memory. Then he has had to wrestle with the likes of Bratz - the Noughties take on Barbie who already has worldwide sales of 80 million - and the Latino TV star Dora the Explorer and the Beanies Babies. Even Eighties comebacks such as Power Rangers and Cabbage Patch Kids put up a fight. To raise his profile, Robosapien was put to work wooing two markets simultaneously. While his Macarena-dance moves and kung fu kicks made children smile in Hamleys, his technological aptitude also appealed to dads in the Gadget Shop, which co-launched the robot with the London toy store back in May. The twin-track strategy of kids and geeks worked. "Robosapien transcends a broader age demographic," says Jo Hall, Woolworths' commercial director. "A kid of eight is as fascinated by him as an adult male, or even an office executive."

Sue Porritt, Hamleys' buying and merchandise director, believes the timing of the May launch was crucial because it gave Character Options long enough to build what she says was a "phenomenal PR campaign". How many other toys have been adopted as a mascot by an up-and-coming boy band? (Our robot friend appears in The Noise Next Door's single, "Lock up your Daughters/Ministry of Mayhem".)

Furthermore, in May, Robosapien had the shops to himself: most other toys hit the shops later in the year. Although the distributor only spent about £400,000 on marketing Robosapien, about average for the industry, Porritt believes that prudent targeting, and a constant focus on PR, separated the robot from the rest of his competitors. "He had 200 press cuttings in the past week alone," she says.

Even cynics must agree, however, that it takes more than a good PR campaign to launch a bestselling toy. If there is one reason for Robosapien's status this Christmas it must be that he is so deceptively easy to play with. His remote control may have 21 buttons, but thanks to a simple colour code it's not hard to work out which button makes him move his legs and arms or bend down to pick up useful objects such as old socks or biscuits. He chats in a common language of what his manufacturer calls "international caveman", (he "ouches", burps and farts) and his child-friendly look - like a stormtrooper-on-steroids - is irresistable.

"A lot of Thai food and soda went into some of his more interesting sounds," says Tilden, as he describes the more complicated aspects of his "baby's" abilities. The robot's DNA is something called "applied biomorphic robotics", which broadly means borrowing Mother Nature's rulebook to clone mankind. The trick is basing Robosapien's "joints" on triangles not squares, just like in the real world. "That gives him fluidity and motion and makes the batteries last. He's a walking science experiment but he looks really cool!" His swaggering walking motion - previously robots have relied on wheels to get around - means his five batteries (not included) will last up to 15 hours. "You've got to put in some major play time from Christmas to New Year just to go through one set of batteries," says his creator.

Without that battery life, Robosapien would have struggled to get that all-important value-for-money tick. He retails at £79.99 in most toyshops (although Argos has just slashed the price to £63.99), making him a pretty expensive toy.

The prospect of shelling out nearly £80 didn't put off Mrs Penman, who was out shopping in London last week. "For the type of toy it is and the fun kids are going to get out of it I think it's a fair price," she adds. I assume that she considers the cost of the train ticket she's spent travelling from Scotland for the purposes of obtaining her Robosapien (they're "all sold out in Scotland") a fair price to pay also.

"The secret is that he was built for kids but he's complicated enough for adults. And the super-secret is that he's complicated enough for scientists," says Tilden. He giggles as he recounts some of the more imaginative ways Robosapien has been used by his fans. One guy apparently bought 20 and programmed them to salute his Darth Vader dolls, while another got his hands on 50, which he got to pull him down the street on a trolley while he whipped them. One little robot has even been put to work as a painter: his work is for sale on eBay.

WowWee's next challenge is to use Robosapien's DNA to create a family. While plans for a female version are on ice until the company has learnt whether girls play with robots, Tilden promises he has some relations up his sleeve. The near sell-out launch of "mini-Robosapien" already suggests that the black-and-white robot is acquiring cult status. Half the height of his bigger brother, the mini robot doesn't do much more than enable people to buy in to the brand for £10. "It's testament to the fact that the image is very cool," says Jonathan Elvidge, founder of the Gadget Shop.

Buyers for the big toyshop chains believe Robosapien's technological prowess means his success was almost guaranteed. "This is one product that's different from the norm. It is innovative but it's not just gimmicky. It has play value as well," says Hamleys' Porritt. As Tilden says: "This is not a robot toy. Guess what? He's a real robot. And he's affordable."

TOYS WERE US

Rubik's Cube

This perplexing treat became the must-have toy, Christmas 1981. This Eighties icon shifted more than 100 million units.

Sylvanian Families

This figurine franchise addressed the pressing debate as to how a fox and a chicken would get on were they ever forced to live in the same house - and dress in turn-of-the-century frontier costume. They won Toy of the Year an unprecedented three times, in 1987, 1988, and 1989.

Tamagotchi

Fickle children forgot that a Tamagotchi is for life, abandoning these virtual pets almost as soon as the 1996 festive rush was over. Their Japanese manufacturers shipped more than 70 million units in two months to the US and UK alone.

Furbies

The cuddly, loquacious Furby took the toy market by storm in the late Nineties. Famously banned from the Pentagon, because they were "able to learn".

Comments