Hands on with Alpha 2, an 'interactive family robot' that tells bedtime stories and teaches yoga

The Alpha 2 from UBTech might cost $1,300, but you have to pay to play in the pricey world of service droids.

UBTech makes a lot of big promises about Alpha 2, its family-friendly “humanoid robot,” so it’s almost reassuring to see that the retail price is set for a steep $1300.

When Alpha 2 exits its development stage and goes onsale, it promises to control home security systems. And teach you foreign languages. And tell the kids bedtime stories. And thanks to a high-precision servo and 20 movable joints that replicate human motion, the 17-inch tall Alpha 2 even does yoga instruction.

Are these the kind of features you want to buy on the cheap? Most definitely not. You have to pay to play in the brave new world of service droids, and the features I listed above are just a few of the robot’s headline functions. The Alpha 2 was first announced in an early November Indiegogo campaign, but now UBTech is publicly showing the robot for the very first time at CES.

alpha 2 robot 1 Jon Phillips
alpha 2 robot 1 Jon Phillips

UBTech had three Alpha 2 prototypes for my demo, and while the hardware seemed ready to roll, the software was still a bit rough. Nonetheless, UBTech CEO James Chow was able to show me some of what this “interactive family robot” can do many months ahead of its expected retail launch in Q4.

The Alpha 2 told me a children’s story, complete with kitschy voice effects, and scripted body motions. It contorted its body into a single yoga pose (many more poses are promised for the future). The Alpha 2 played high-energy pop music, and danced to the beat. Today the playlist is limited, but streaming music support is in the UBTech roadmap.

And most intriguingly, the Alpha 2 controlled the garage door and living room lights of a tiny model home. Today the smart home control depends on a closed proprietary system that UBTech just uses for demo purposes, but support for Apple HomeKit, Nest, Samsung SmartThings, and Philips Hue are in the company’s targets.

Chow also demoed the Alpha 2’s facial recognition: The robot’s head tracked my movement with its eyes, and then snapped a photo of me when I triggered a button on a mobile app. In the future, that photo function will be voice controlled, and Alpha 2 will upload images to social media. Also in the future: Support for Google search. You’ll be able to hook into Google language translation, weather reports, and the full Google knowledge graph. Just ask Alpha 2 a question, and he (or she?) will tap into Google for a response.

The Alpha 2 boasts 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and runs on Android. It must be connected to Wi-Fi to work, and battery life is rated for just one hour (so most of its life will probably be confined to a countertop, tethered to a wall outlet).

$1,300 is a lot of money, but if you’ve always dreamed of having your own service droid, this might be the droid you’re looking for. But let’s give Alpha 2 some time to mature. I found I had to issue very specific voice commands for the robot to kick into action, but much more natural language support should be on the way.

And we can also expect more functionality than everything I’ve described above: There’s an open API for third-party app support, and users will be able to download VAPPs (voice apps) from a planned Alpha store.

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