Moxie is the debut product from Pasadena-based robotics company Embodied Inc. Fitted with the very latest form of AI, it is a sophisticated companion for the curious child, designed to work with a wide range of behaviours and approaches and set up a broad and cohesive understanding of social cues and engagement. Moxie’s distinctive form has been shaped by a team led by Yves Béhar at fuseproject, further cementing the studio’s reputation as a place for helping shape cutting edge technology.

‘I’d worked with [Embodied co-founder] Paolo Pirjanian ten years ago when he was building a cleaning robot,’ says Béhar, ‘We reconnected about three years ago. He’d assembled a team of child development and robotic specialists in order to build a kid’s companion, a robot that would help with a child’s social skills and developmental needs.’

Béhar explains that his previous robot-based projects hadn’t required any kind of human traits. Moxie is very different. ‘The idea of helping build social, emotional and cognitive skills was interesting to us,’ he says, ‘from a design standpoint, children really need expressive human traits to help them stay engaged, so we focused on the eyes and the hands.’ The compact companion stands just under 40cm tall and is light enough to be lifted onto tabletops.

The design process involved a lot of necessary simplification. ‘We developed a back-projection screen for the face – it’s not a complex mechanical piece. This enabled us to make Moxie very ‘character’ driven.’ The little robot is expressive and reactive, programmed to ask gentle questions, challenge behaviours and promote dialogue, both with itself and with others.

The design process involved a lot of necessary simplification. ‘We developed a back-projection screen for the face – it’s not a complex mechanical piece. This enabled us to make Moxie very ‘character’ driven.’ The little robot is expressive and reactive, programmed to ask gentle questions, challenge behaviours and promote dialogue, both with itself and with others.

The designers have done well to steer themselves well away from the vertiginous slopes of the uncanny valley. Moxie’s ‘face’ is augmented with a simplified ‘body’, driven in part by the need to simplify mechanisms for cost and durability. ‘The eyes and the face are where the conversation happens,’ says Béhar, pointing out that the robot is aimed at neurodivergent as well as neurotypical children, aged predominantly between 6 and 9. ‘It is also important that the robot’s movements reflect its expressions.’

Embodied Inc’s software allows the little machine to pivot and twist and wave its stubby arms, with ‘ears’ that are a natural spot for microphones (and can be whispered into). The glove-like hands with their pointing index finger were refined from a complicated articulated four fingered hand.

Yves Behar designs Robot called Moxie, with a cute smiley face

‘Building the robot was about editing the simplicity and seeing how few joints we could have and still have expressive behaviour,’ says Béhar, ‘it doesn’t feel like a gadget or a toy, but like an intelligent being.’ In some respects, this little bright blue character is a fulfilment of a long-standing aspect of techno-utopianism: a robot that can teach. The overall look is that of a Pixar-esque space explorer, clad in soft-touch blue thermoplastic elastomer.

‘The minimalism actually increases the intended expressive effect,’ says Béhar. The designer and his team have transformed this advanced bundle of technology into a believable and credible character, one that is programmed to adapt and ‘learn’ as it spends more and more time being used. Design works hand in glove with software to create the illusion of a sentient being. ‘I’m actually in awe at what the AI can do,’ the designer concludes.. §