At the Bay Area Maker Faire this past May, we had our first glimpse of Wild Planet’s Spy Video TRAKR, a $130 radio-controlled toy with some surprises under the hood.
On the surface, the Spy Video TRAKR — the latest addition to the popular Spy Gear toy line — is an R/C tank with a video camera and night vision, with the added ability to download new “apps” from the internet for extra functions. With a little detective work, one uncovers the TRAKR’s secret double life: it’s also an eminently hackable robotics platform! Prior Spy Gear toys have been popular hack targets, providing inexpensive, mass-produced sources of unusual items such as head-mounted displays. Rather than throw up barriers, Wild Planet has chosen to embrace this secondary market, with plans to release development tools and documentation making it possible to extend the device’s capabilities.
Read on for our image-heavy unboxing and initial impressions.
The packaging is outwardly consumer-oriented — this is, first and foremost, a kids toy after all — and the “USB Connected” and “Download & Build Custom Apps” labels are about as technical as it gets on the outside.
Batteries not included. You’ll need plenty. And did you ever expect to see Linux mentioned by name on anything at Toys R Us? Awesome!
Internal packaging is minimalist and largely recyclable. No twist ties, no staples, no plastic bubbles, no registration cards or catalogs. Much appreciated! We’ve seen much smaller toys with far more gratuitous packaging, so this was a welcome relief.
The entire contents of the box are as follows:
- The TRAKR vehicle itself, with antenna in the stowed position.
- Snap-on “transport deck,” seems to be of little use other than to provide a seat for G.I. Joe or the adorable tiny kitten in the looming flood of YouTube videos.
- Remote control unit.
- Single page instruction sheet.
- Four foot long banana yellow USB A to mini-B cable.
The TRAKR vehicle is a stubby, squat tank, measuring about 10 inches wide and 7 inches long. Six AA cells install behind a cover on the underside of the unit. The total weight with alkaline cells is 1065 grams, or about 2 pounds 5 oz. Picks up easily with one hand.
The front of the TRAKR vehicle features a number of sensors. Left to right, these include: microphone (the white circle at the left), a presently-unused accessory connection port which appears to contain a bump switch, the color video camera and infrared LED for night vision, and speaker (larger white circle at the right). The camera can be pivoted from straight ahead to about 30 degrees upward, but there is no servo control of this function; it must be manually positioned.
The rear wheels of the TRAKR have independent electric motors; the front wheels are passive, driven by rubber treads. All the wheels are held on by triangle security screws, so replacing these with fancy R/C car tires probably won’t come easy.
With the transport deck removed we can see the ports on the back of the TRAKR: an SD card slot for storing photos and video (also SDHC compatible), the USB mini-B connector for attaching to a PC (or Mac, etc.), and a USB type A connector that currently serves no purpose, but might be related to future accessories (and hacks, of course).
When connected to a host computer, the TRAKR appears as a 1-megabyte FAT12 filesystem. New apps, downloaded from the Spy Video TRAKR web site, are installed by simply copying the corresponding .bin file to the APPs directory on this flash drive. It’s quite a bit like the mbed microcontroller in this regard. With the three factory apps pre-loaded, there’s about 900K free space remaining. Additionally, the TRAKR can function as an SD card reader when attached via USB.
The remote control unit is a bit over 5 inches high and wide. Four AA cells install behind a back cover, and the total weight is 392 grams, or about 13.5 oz. The size and heft of the controller is sufficiently comfortable for both young and adult hands. There are two single-axis sticks for driving the tank Battlezone-style, five buttons (one dedicated to the “home” function, the rest being app-specific), a power and volume switch, speaker, and a 1.75″ color LCD screen in the center. Though the sticks have an analog feel, in practice they appear to be simple non-proportional controls.
The LCD looks to be half-QVGA resolution (160×120). The video feed averages a good 15 frames per second over the device’s wireless (2.4 GHz, but not WiFi) connection.
Night vision is provided by a single 8mm near-infrared LED, with a range of about six feet.
The camera can also take QVGA (320×240) color stills, and half-QVGA (160×120) video, recorded to the SD card as JPEG and AVI, respectively. Here are some unprocessed stills directly from the memory card:
Something interesting we noticed with outdoor use is that most trees appear red, due to the camera’s sensitivity to infrared light. This generally isn’t a problem with images taken indoors under normal lighting.
The TRAKR ran a bit quieter than we expected, and had no problem clearing door thresholds or running across and between different floor surfaces. Having a camera barely over two inches off the ground may seem to be of questionable utility — the WowWee Rovio mobile webcam, for example, can raise its point of view about a foot for a better perspective — and, to be honest, at first the whole thing seemed a bit pointless. But the more time we spent driving around, getting into the mindset and reliving the countless hours of our youth spent with a Big Trak (sort of a 1980s progenitor to the TRAKR), the more apparent it was that this is the ideal perspective for the toy’s intended audience: kids aren’t contemplating edge filters and object tracking algorithms…they’re doing important kid things, running James Bond spy missions, knocking over action figures and army men and chasing after the cat. And as you see above, the camera is set perfectly at action-figure-and-cat-terrorizing height!
So that’s an overview of the TRAKR as it comes straight from the box. To do more, we begin by visiting the Spy Video TRAKR web site:
The “Download Apps” link currently leads to a list of about a dozen simple apps developed in-house:
None of the apps is particularly outstanding; they appear to be for illustrative purposes, each one demonstrating a single idea and not wanting to overwhelm the budding programmer. Most range from about 20 to 40 kilobytes.
Clicking an app name reveals more information — a description, download link for the compiled app, and also a source code link for us geeks. Unfortunately, that’s where the fun ends for now. “APP BUILDR,” the code editor and compiler which works online (again like the aforementioned mbed microcontroller), is not yet accessible:
The Spy Video TRAKR was originally slated to ship this fall for the holiday shopping season. Wild Planet managed a great head start at getting the TRAKR into production and distribution — we have the toy in-hand and you can already find this at a number of retailers — but the software is still on its original schedule for an October release. We understand software timelines and are sympathetic to that reality, but this does mean there’s little sense of urgency if your main interest in the TRAKR was for programming. It can wait.
In the interim, we can start to deconstruct the development process with the small bits of information available. From Maker Faire, we do know that the TRAKR contains an ARM9 processor, and is programmed in C. And while the code editor isn’t yet online, we can follow the “Download Source” link for an app to retrieve its source code. Here’s an excerpt from one of the demonstration programs:
Indeed it’s C, with just a light wrapping of functions (e.g. Start() and Run() instead of a main() function). There’s clearly a Spy Video TRAKR-specific API (svt.h) for accessing hardware functionality like the TRAKR’s motors or the controller’s buttons and display, but documentation for this library isn’t available online yet.
At this point, we’re still dealing entirely with standard, as-advertised, out-of-the-box capabilities. The thing about the TRAKR that really made us stop and take notice at Maker Faire, the thing that has us genuinely enthusiastic about the product even though this article probably sounds like a total corporate shill by now (we approached them first, honest), has everything to do with the toy’s Easter egg:
It’s a sublime detail: the clear letters on the otherwise frosted cover just above the rear ports hint at intriguing stuff within. The cover is held on with just a couple of ordinary Phillips screws. Say, were you the sort of curious kid who’d dismantle their toys to see what makes them work? We thought so.
On the outside: the URL for the consumer. On the inside: the URL for the inquisitive. Just a fraction of an inch and a thin sheet of plastic apart. It’s absolutely brilliant, and there’s no mention of this on the packaging or the standard web site.
So — in addition to the standard app web site, a second web site (and sadly an equally unfinished one at this time) is planned to delve even deeper into the system’s inner workings. But even without this information, we can see hints of what’s ahead just by examining the board, which they’ve thoughtfully labeled. We can make out an unpopulated third USB port, an unpopulated switch connector, a breakout header that appears to have eight GPIO lines and one analog input, and a smaller breakout header for an SPI port of some sort (perhaps debugging).
Additionally, both the TRAKR and the remote control have switches and ports concealed under access panels:
The trim pots on the TRAKR are almost certainly for tuning the radio transceiver. The switches on both units are labeled “USB” for one position and “SPI” for the other, and this appears to be related to debugging or flash memory programming. Both switches ship in the “SPI” position.
It’s encouraging to see the Spy Video TRAKR following the lead of other open robots like the Roomba and Rovi, and we hope to see it gain a similar following. There may still be more surprises within. With our basic review completed, watch Hack a Day for a full teardown in the future.
So, readers, what hacks can you envision for such a device? Telescoping camera stalk? Hexapod legs? Weaponry? Are there any particular features you’d like to see more closely investigated in our teardown? Let’s hear about it in the comments!