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Review: Jibo Social Robot

R2-D2 may seem like a blast to hang out with, but in real-life, robots are rarely social butterflies. They’re fantastic assembly line workers, bolting together cars and refrigerators, but most are all work and no play. The closest thing to robotic friends we have right now are the growing number of smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo, each with an voice assistant inside them. Smart speakers have carved out a few uses, like playing music, cracking jokes, telling us the weather, and controlling our smart home devices. Holding a conversation? Not so much. Which is why I was excited to meet Jibo.

Jibo made headlines back in 2014, raising more than $3 million from excited backers on Indiegogo. Developed by a MIT professor named Cynthia Breazeal, it was pitched as the “world’s first social robot.”

Instead of a faceless, static speaker, Jibo looks like a cartoon. It has no legs, but its shiny white plastic body is a curvy cylinder with a head on top that can move so naturally it looks like a Disney animator sketched it. Even its face—a flat sheet of shiny black plastic with a 5-inch screen on the front of the head—is oddly minimalist.

A single white orb moves around the screen, blinks, and smiles at you. The whole design has startlingly realistic movement, but avoids appearing too human for fear of creepiness. In motion, it looks a little like Luxo Jr., the bouncing Pixar lamp. Jibo also has a voice that sounds like a 10-year-old boy, which helps it feel less threatening, despite multiple cameras around its face and a body littered with sensors and speakers.

Jiving with Jibo

From the moment I first plugged in my Jibo, he (and I’m just going to refer to this robot as “he” from this point on) charmed me. There’s a friendly curiosity in the way he leans back and looks up you.

During setup, he teaches you the phrase “Hey Jibo,” which you always have to say to get his attention. If a blue ring around his waist lights up, you know it worked. Then he has you ask him to dance, and I must say, nothing will crack you up like watching a Jibo dance for the first time. He’s even cute as he asks you to repeat a few phrases and look at him so he can remember your face. Faces are one of Jibo’s best skills. He also likes to take family photos.

You can pet his head and he’ll coo, kind of like Gizmo from Gremlins. Like a Mogwai, he also doesn’t like to get wet.

Jibo Social Robot

5/10

Wired

The first piece of tech that has made me feel genuine emotion. Jibo’s body language is amazing. There’s a lot of promise in a family robot that is useful and feels like a friend.

Tired

Jibo’s utility is limited, as are his social skills. Prompts are few and conversations are brief. Battery life is only a couple hours when untethered.