Beijing-based Vincross has just launched HEXA, a six-legged, swivel-topped programmable robot, via a Kickstarter fund with a launch price of $499. The spider-like robot has the ability to take part in search and rescue, dancing or espionage missions; the accompanying ecosystem with its “skill store,” programming language and simulator might prove to be more of a breakthrough—and moneymaker—than the hardware.
HEXA can walk, climb and carry things, navigating with a 720p camera, night vision, a gravity sensor, three-axis accelerometer, distance measuring sensors (lasers), infrared transmitter and has other features such as WiFi and multiple ports for add-ons and connections. It has even beaten Apple to wireless charging.
It’s probably best to see the HEXA in action:
“If you want to explore using current robots, you have to be a roboticist,” Vincross COO Andy Xu tells TechNode from San Francisco, “because even a simple task such as moving an arm will take hundreds of lines of code, but with this ecosystem it’s very easy to create tasks like this.”
The ecosystem, called MIND (they like their capitals), is the combination of a programming language, a skill store of sets of coding submitted by developers, the mobile app, and a 3D simulator where developers can quickly have a virtual on-screen HEXA go through the motions or test virtual environments.
One of the main reasons that Jenny Lee, managing director of GGV Capital, Vincross’s main investors, was so interested in Vincross is because of how comprehensive the ecosystem is. Lee values the operating system more than the hardware for generating returns, the Vincross team explains. With so many devices flooding the market, the operating system is the big differentiator.
One of our main questions to the Vincross team was, of course, if the HEXA falls on its back, can it get back up? No. “HEXA will immediately know that its back is on the ground, but it cannot do anything,” says Xu. Can it call for help? Actually, yes—that was a skill devised by a Beta tester.
“We don’t really know yet what the community will create,” says Xu. “[The ecosystem] increases accessibility for developer groups.” Beta testers have created some other skills already available in the skill store such as “bull fighting,” which programs the HEXA to recognize red items held nearby and will move towards them.
Vincross has also launched a scheme to find 2,048 mentors for the HEXA to use the device in innovative ways (2,048 because that’s 2 to the power of 11). 8,000 people had already signed up for pre-access to the Kickstarter and serious applications for the HEXA had flooded in.
One human mentor request was made by a scientist in the University of Hawaii’s HI-SEAS Mars mission simulation, for exploration but also for “emotional support.” An improv actor has requested one for taking part in his shows and a researcher at Imperial College London will conduct reinforcement learning experiments on a HEXA so that it can learn for itself.
“We are looking for tasks from the community in search and rescue tasks and home security,” said Xu. “What we’ve done with HEXA is put technology that was not [previously] accessible to developers into the platform. For the next generation, we’re looking at a bigger version of HEXA that can climb higher stairs, cross more difficult terrain and has more sensors.”
Which begs the question of security. “It’s much like drones. There are some things we can do as manufacturers such as geofencing, but as platform builders, there’s little we can do in terms of micromanaging behavior,” explains Xu.
As for user safety, the HEXA uses encryption that means intercepted data is unreadable and that can detect any man-in-the-middle attacks.
Despite raising $7 million in early round funding, Vincross is going ahead with a Kickstarter launch to generate a large order batch. The device will go on sale in China in a month’s time via JD.com. The components are all made in Shenzhen and then the HEXA robots are assembled in the company’s own factory in Beijing. Manufacturing in China is highly appealing to the team, as Xu explains: “We can do one iteration in two weeks compared to one or two months in the US.”
Prices on Kickstarter start at $499 to $649 with an expected price of $999 after the event. Prices for when it goes on sale via JD.com are not yet available.
The device is not intended as a toy as the programming still requires rather complex coding. Instead, at first it is intended for developers. This could be a significant new realm of development, says Xu:
“The plan is for developers to make money on this platform. As a former developer I can say that it is very boring to develop on current platforms like games and VR or mobile apps. Developers want something new. Unlike other platforms that are highly two dimensional, robotics gives you a pathway to interact with the real physical world.”
Skills entered into the skill store are currently free to any users and developers, “but it’s not hard for us to add in-app purchases,” says Xu.
More types of robots will become available in the future, but if you master the MIND ecosystem via HEXA, you won’t have to relearn a new interface for future robots, whether or not they are manufactured by Vincross.