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1985 Elami Jr. vs. 1978 2-XL


2-XL’s programs were simple 8-track cassettes. Though the robot’s inventor had earlier designed a computerized talking robot for his wife’s classroom, manufacturing a mass-produced, computerized robot in the 1970s was simply not economically feasible. Nor would the experience have been very satisfying. While hobbyists appreciated the potential of computers in that decade, consumers would not have. Employing the 8-track served as a clever work-around, for 2-XL very ably and very inexpensively simulated a computerized experience.

Still, one wonders what 2-XL would have been like had he been an actual computer. One might look for the answer in subsequent toy robots. I recall noticing the Heathkit Hero Robot in 1982 (see Wikipedia), but it was so expensive I quickly dismissed the notion of ever owning one. I don’t recall the Elami Jr. robot in 1985 — though by that time I had outgrown such toys. (I was then 15 and more interested in mountain biking.) Elami Jr. was, in fact, a computerized robot.

Here are some specs from The Old Robots website:

8 bit microcomputer, 4K bytes ROM for operations, 16K bit speech processor & 2 x 128K ROM chips for vocabulary, Large LCD display – four espressions – happy, angry, suprised, sleepy, A total of 24 LED lights!, Two mechanical arms and grippers, 25 key talking keypad, 206 words of speech/15 programmable words or phrases, tactile bumper sensors, infrared sensor. — link

Wow! Actual computer specs! However, watching the following video quickly curbs ones enthusiasm for the product:

With such specs, Elami simply could not replicate the responsiveness consumers expected of robots. His voice is unaffected and artificial, and his expressions a bit weird. Granted, I’m sure many children loved this robot, but I doubt the average consumer did. Consider today how dissatisfied we are with the battery life of most smartphones; however, manufacturers have simply reached the limits of the technology. There are serious obstacles to overcome regarding battery life (see here). Such was the same with robots in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In general, our expectations exceeded the capacity of the technology. It’s no surprise that as the speed of processors increased, so did consumers’ demand for technology.

My intention is not to dismiss Elami Jr. and other such products, but simply to note the extraordinary obstacles inventors faced in meeting the demands and expectations of the general public. We are a demanding people.

© 2013, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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