Vietnam robot maker seeks splash at Toy Fair (News Feature)
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin Feb 6, 2010, 10:58 GMT
Nuremberg, Germany - Posters for a ping-pong-playing robot occupy pride of place at the entrances to the Nuremberg Toy Fair this week, urging trade buyers to visit the booth of an upstart Vietnamese company with big ambitions.
On closer examination, it emerges that the life-sized white android wearing dark glasses is not a toy, nor is it for sale.
It is a prototype only, and not agile enough to join a human ping-pong team.
But the machine, code-named Topio, has certainly drawn attention to Tosy Robotics, one of four Vietnamese firms renting space at the world's top toy show, which continues in Germany till February 9.
Marketing manager Ho Quynh Nga described Topio as the company's 'technology ambassador.'
Among Tosy's other ambitions is to complete a radio-controlled 'football' which rolls itself along the ground, even uphill, changes direction and stops, thanks to a motor hidden inside.
But hopes of releasing that toy in time for the World Cup football tournament this June look slim.
Vo Lan Anh, a Tosy manager, said at the Toy Fair, 'The biggest difficulty is making it robust enough to conform with European Union safety standards.' She said Tosy had not yet submitted the ball to testers who could certify if it meets EU safety standards.
She said Tosy did not expect the football to be shockproof enough to actually kick, nor was it meant to fly through the air.
However Tosy's sole working toy at the fair does fly.
It is a plastic whirlybird: a flying disc which lifts off its launcher when a child pulls a cord to start the rotor spinning.
Whirlybirds are hardly new: even old folk remember them fondly from childhood. Those from Tosy and various Chinese competitors at the Toy Fair have lights built into the rims, powered by a capacitor in the hub, to create a spooky effect when it flies at night.
Tosy calls its product the 'UFO Returning' because it can be made to come back to where it took off.
It takes courage to bring just one product and unproven ideas to the Nuremberg Toy Fair, a trade-only event where experienced manufacturers with thousands of products coldly discuss clever ways to invoke the collecting urges of little kids and hook their money.
Staff of Tosy explained that the plastic rotor was a bread-and-butter product to create income, which can then feed the Hanoi company's plans to enter the industrial robot business. They said the rotor was already selling well in Australia.
Industrial robots do not have the same glamour as Topio the android: they look more like machine tools and electric tweezers.
The company, which was set in 2004 by young university graduates and is backed by a Vietnamese investment fund, also plans to beat its drum at Automatica, a robotics trade fair in the German city of Munich in June.
The Vietnamese government supports projects that help move Vietnam out of low-value manufacturing into fields needing brain skills.
'Industrial robots are very expensive at the moment,' explained Ho.
'So if we were to produce high-performance robots at low cost, any factory could afford to employ them,' she said. The key would be to manufacture all the robot components at low cost inside Vietnam.
Tosy aims to keep a connection to the toy industry with a baby version of Topio aimed at rich Asian buyers fascinated with robotics.
That projected product, Topio Tiny, will not attempt to play ping-pong. Topio Tiny's mission is to walk and to balance on one leg.
With the free leg, Topio Tiny will be able to execute an Asian martial-arts kick. But carefully.
'He might fall down,' said Ho with a smile. 'But he'll have the capability to stand up again afterwards.'