Six years ago, a white plastic rabbit that was connected to my home Wi-Fi network read some news headlines and played a few songs. Colored lights on his belly lit up a few times throughout the day, reminding me that he was alive.
It was a novel product at best, a solution in search of a problem at worst.
Under new owners, Aldebaran Robotics, the smart rabbit is back. As Easter approaches it seems to be a fine time to look at the latest version of the robotic rabbit. Now dubbed Karotz ($129), the rabbit has learned a few new tricks.
Unfortunately, those few new tricks don't quite keep pace with other smart devices, namely phones, that permeate our personal belongings. This hare is finishing last in the rapidly evolving technology race.
Karotz _ as in the veggie rabbits adore _ connects to Wi-Fi networks much as it had before. It was simple to set him to recognize my network by connecting him temporarily via USB to my Mac or Windows computer.
The next step is to add applications from Karotz's online marketplace to get news, Facebook updates and more. Karotz doesn't need to be connected to my computer for that part. I just need to create an account online and link it to my rabbit.
There are more than 200 free apps to choose from. They are a mix of apps made by Karotz's creators and by outside developers. The product is still relatively obscure, and the bulk of the available apps are streaming radio stations, which in the age of Pandora and Spotify felt underwhelming.
Once I've set up Karotz, the rabbit knows to access the apps and deliver their content as long as he's online. He speaks through a speaker and accepts voice commands to launch some apps by pressing a button on his head and speaking to him.
When Karotz' belly glows green, it's a sign that he's connected to the network. But when I first tried to launch a few apps, his belly turned a solid blue, indicating a problem. Factory settings were being restored, according to the manual. Once that happened, I was able to use some of the more problematic apps, but the issue returned occasionally.
Success was spotty on both my home and work Wi-Fi networks. A weak Wi-Fi connection might have been to blame, but a smart sequence of lights to spell out the exact problem would have helped.
When Karotz did work, the performance was acceptable. A robotic voice dutifully read me a few NPR news headlines. It sounded a bit like a GPS vocal navigation system.
But some of the apps need fine-tuning. After linking my Facebook and Karotz accounts, the bunny started to read my news and notification feeds upon request. I pressed the button on his head and said "Facebook" to launch the app. I had to press his head one more time and say "reading" for the actual reading to begin. It's a little difficult to detect the breaks between messages, with the robotic intonation, but it's not bad if you're sitting right next to Karotz listening intently.
Karotz also read my Twitter feed after I installed that application. It delivered similar results, reading mentions of my Twitter handle and direct messages sent to me. But I check Twitter so often that this app felt redundant.
One gem of a feature is a small webcam, located just beneath the glowing belly of the bunny. Using an app called Karotz Controller, I was able to take live snapshots of my living room from my Android phone in the office (The Karotz Controller is available for the Apple iPhone and iPad as well).
As I suspected, there was my dog, Buster, lying comfortably on the off-limits couch.
But how could I get him to move? I turned to Karotz for help.
Fortunately, Karotz Controller also features a messaging system. I simply had to type a sentence into my phone and send it to Karotz to be read aloud. "Get off the couch, Buster!" made his ears perk up a bit, but it will take more than a plastic rabbit with no legs shoo him away.
The radio apps work fine. GD UP Radio, an online station featuring rap and hip-hop, launched quickly and streamed perfectly. And the Hot 97.7 radio app even offered a dancing ears option, which made Karotz long ears twirl rhythmically to the beat. There are several stations with Karotz apps available for free, which I guess is handy if I can't get those stations by traditional radio.
Sadly, most of this is novelty.
For the most part, Karotz delivers very little content my smartphone can't fetch quicker and easier. I can read Facebook, glance at weather forecasts and check news and Twitter feeds seamlessly on my Motorola Droid X2. My phone doesn't read them aloud, but I don't want it to.
And other devices in my home, from PCs to game machines, offer so much streamed and synched content that they've effectively lapped Karotz's six-year growth as an entertaining, ambient content-delivery device.
Karotz is certainly an improvement over previous versions of the device. But with an urban environment blanketed in smart devices and connectivity, the need for the smart bunny has dimmed.
Mobile phones are the current Swiss army knife solution for most social media and content delivery needs beyond the traditional desktop. It's hard to replace the functionality of a smartphone with a device that is tethered to a shelf and has no display screen. Novelty tech products quickly lose their luster when facing much smarter devices that travel with the user _ everywhere.
Ron Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/Journorati