The Robosapien is the best-selling Christmas toy everyone forgot about

Esquire did a timeline of the top-selling Christmas toys by year. If you click through it, you’ll notice three main themes: first, Elmo toys have won the entire market about three or four times; that’s probably best explained in this article.  Second, most of the toys that won years even back into the 1990s still resonate today, be it XBox (which is undergoing a bit of a revolution) or Beanie Babies (I myself haven’t interacted with a Beanie Baby in years, but I’ve seen ’em around and assume they still resonate with people). Then there’s one toy, which won the world in 2004, that seems to resonate less these days: the Robosapien.

Mark Tilden — who was a robot consultant for the Lara Croft films — was the designer of the toy. Exact sales figures are hard to come by via Google, but this press release indicates over 5 million Robosapiens were sold. It was the first commercially-available biomorphic robot, which by my best estimates means something along the lines of modeling design elements on naturally occurring patterns. I’ll get to the current model in a few seconds, but some of the features include six — six — different Kung Fu moves, 67 — sixty-seven! — different pre-programmed functions including “belching” and “rapping,” and fluent international cavemen speech. The Robosapien has had five different incarnations, although the current one appears to be called Robosapien X:

This article was written around when the first model came out; it reads a little like a press release but it still has some good detail on what made the original model (the one that dominated 2004 Christmas sales) so unique. The Robosapien movement eventually grew to include numerous pop culture tie-ins, including this notable one:

Why has the popularity of something like Elmo maintained, and something like a biomorphic robot never won another Christmas season? Well, I think no one has any true idea and anyone that makes claims is partially full of shite, but … here’s a couple of theories. Elmo toys are predominantly geared at pre-school/kinder-aged children; at that age, the two most important aspects are actionability and connection. Elmo is a bit creepy, plus there’s all this, but the toy works for a young kid — and they only roll out 1 major Elmo a year, near Christmas, which is a good marketing technique. (“Slow burn” or something.) These robots are cool toys, but I could see the human attitude towards robots as becoming less fluffy as military-grade robots become way more technologically-advanced. For example, this thing is probably going to rule the Earth one day:

… so maybe parents are more inclined to say “Hey buddy, want a huggable red thing from Sesame Street as opposed to a 14-inch version of something that may someday replace me as your father?” Here’s a September 2012 European study of human attitudes towards robots — most Euros are ‘somewhat interested’ in what’s happening in that sector — and there’s numerous articles in well-regarded publications (mostly) about fearing the rise of robots: see here, here, here and here. 

If you were wondering, by the way, there are currently drone toys. I suppose technically any flying toy ever developed could be construed as a drone toy, but there’s also this:

Oh, and this, which has 225K views (be scared):

So the basic theory goes: huggable toy, or electronic gaming toy, or thing you can read books on > small version of potential future overlord. That seems to make sense.

Ted Bauer