Turning a Toy Into a Smart (AI) Companion for Kids

Introduction: Turning a Toy Into a Smart (AI) Companion for Kids

About: I am an electronics engineer, researcher, hobbyist, DIYer, geek, programmer, micro-chip designer. From childhood I have had great affinity towards electrical and electronic devices and circuits. I managed to w…

Ever since my daughter watched the animation movie called "Next Gen", she wanted a smart companion robot like 7723. She asked me if I could make her one. Being an electronics engineer and researcher in the field, her request kept on bugging me in my mind.

I searched a lot to buy an inexpensive but smarter off-the-shelf toy which would respond to voice commands from my daughter. My search was not entirely fruitful. I was able to find smarter robots however they were quite expensive, about $10,000 or thereabouts. When I looked at cheaper toy robots, they were quite dumb. Many of them came with a remote control to make them move and buttons to make them talk. No speech recognition or smartness.

Then I thought, how do I combine the smart home speakers like Alexa or Google into a Toy Robot without much effort and expense. Guess what, I was able to successfully combine the two and gift my daughter the requested companion with little effort and expense. Hope you find this instructable helpful.

Disclaimer

All the instructions and code are provided "as is", please follow/use them at your own risk, I will not be liable for anything what so ever. Also please let me inform you that I do not have any tie-up with the vendors that I have mentioned below from whom I have acquired, obtained, purchased various software and hardware components, nor do I receive any commission from them. These components carry license agreements and trademarks from the vendors. Please adhere to their respective license agreements and respect their trademarks. All the trademarks are hereby acknowledged.

Supplies

1) Lexibook Powergirl Robot (or similarly inexpensive toy robot). Cost roughly £30.

2) Google Nest Mini Smart Speaker (second hand from ebay). Cost roughly £10.

3) Basic tools like screwdriver etc.

Step 1: Buying a Toy Robot

First thing I did was to buy a cheap toy robot. While I was exploring and thinking, I came across a Lexibook Powergirl in Aldi for £30. I grabbed it :).

Step 2: How Much Space Is Inside?

The next thing I did was to find out where I can fit the new circuitry and how much space do I have.

So, I opened the robot's head and peeked into. I found the head was occupied with the foam disk thrower mechanism. I asked my daughter if she would be ok if I removed the disk thrower :). She was happy if I was going to make the robot smarter. So I removed the disk thrower and noticed that it created a lot of space.

I was dreading to have to dismantle the smart speaker to re-fit the speaker circuitry into the robot as that would be quite a lot of work. I was very happy with the space I found thinking I might just fit the whole speaker without requiring to dismantle it :).

Step 3: Finding the Right Smart Speaker!

Then, I started looking for an off-the-shelf smart speaker with the smallest physical size but quite smart in terms of its responses. I evaluated the Echo Dot (3rd Gen) and the Google Nest Mini. I concluded that Google Nest Mini will fit in the robot's head without requiring any dismantling and is still more than smart enough for my daughter to play with and to talk to.

Then I thought, let me check on ebay if someone is selling a second hand Google Nest Mini. This would save some money. Luckily, I found a seller who was selling a used working Google Nest Mini for £7 but with little scuffs. I did not mind the physical appearance as I was going to either dismantle or install the entire speaker in the robot's head. I bought it straight away and eagerly awaited its delivery.

Step 4: Giving the Toy Robot a Brain!

As soon as I received the Google Nest Mini, I jumped on to giving the Lexibook Powergirl a brain to bring it to life.

I was hoping that the entire speaker may just fit in the robot's head and guess what? It did, with little wiggling around.

Then it occurred to me that if I closed the head, the speaker might not be able to hear us clearly through the disk thrower flap. So, I decided to drill some holes in the back of the robot's head, not the front. This was so that our voice/speech would reach to the smart speaker's microphones quite comfortably.

Finally, I assembled everything and plugged the micro-usb cable into the robot's head at the back.

Guess what, the robot came to life! :).

I gifted the robot to my daughter and she has been the happiest. Her belief in her dad's engineering abilities has even grown more. I made my daughter's wish come true with much less time (before she has grown up and the project became a never ending research project, you know what I mean ;)).

Step 5: Demonstration

Here is a demonstration video. The voice commands are clearly heard by the Google Assistant. The movement is controlled by the remote control that came with the Lexibook Robot.

Step 6: Futurework!

As you can see in the demo video, the robot is powered by cable. The next step for me is to power it from the robot's own batteries or attach a battery pack like a mobile phone power bank. This will make the robot completely cordless and can walk around freely.

The same approach can be applied to any toy, just pick your son/daughter's favorite character :).

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