Professor Einstein: Your Personal Genius educational toy review

The alternately cute and creepy Professor Einstein wants to teach your kids about science

We have seen everything from a smart bra to an electric skateboard here at Digital Trends, but we never imagined a 14.5-inch Professor Einstein robot would be strutting around on our coffee table explaining what a volcano is. This cute, walking, talking, automaton was designed by Hanson Robotics to teach the basics of science to kids, teenagers, and interested adults.

Professor Einstein lectures, answers questions, and even tells jokes. With the aid of an iPad or Android tablet, he can also quiz you to test your knowledge. We first saw a demo back in January when the Kickstarter campaign launched. It was successful, so we’ve spent the last week with the finished product. He’s recommended for ages 13 and up, but we enlisted my dinosaur-obsessed, astronomy-mad eight-year-old son, and his inquisitive five-year-old sister to help us with our Professor Einstein: Your Personal Genius review.

Why Professor Einstein?

Famed German physicist Albert Einstein had a profound impact on modern physics when he developed the theory of relativity. He went on to win a Nobel prize in 1921, and so great was his intellectual influence, that his very name has become slang for genius.

Professor Einstein lectures, answers questions, and even tells jokes.

There’s no doubt that Einstein is an iconic character, but he’s also morphed into something of a caricature in pop culture, and that’s exactly what this diminutive robot is – a caricature. The long white hair, the bushy moustache, and the expressive eyebrows are instantly recognizable, even for an eight-year-old.

Professor Einstein has a series of motors inside that allow him to shuffle around, roll his realistic eyeballs, point at you, and even pull expressions like sticking out his tongue. His voice is distinctly robotic, but with the same speech patterns and clipped German accent you’ll hear in every Einstein impression.

Getting started with Professor Einstein was one of the smoothest gadget set-ups we’ve ever experienced. You plug the rechargeable batteries into his legs, pull down his pants to flick on the power switch on his posterior, and download the free Stein-o-Matic app for iOS or Android.

We had a blast with the tech support voice that guides you through pairing, and the ‘50s theme carries through into the gorgeous app art. Once Einstein’s personality and intellect has been downloaded and he’s hooked up to your Wi-Fi network, you can create profiles and take your first step on the enlightening path to genius.

Educational, but relatively fun

Professor Einstein is capable of a few things on his own, but he’s really designed to be used in concert with the Stein-o-Matic app. We were immediately impressed with the quality of the software. There are a few bite-sized introductory videos covering the universe, the brain, motion, and special relativity, which Einstein narrates, giving the impression of a multimedia lecture.

There’s also a large selection of data cards, which provide information on topics from astronomy to biology to geology, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. The presentation is great and the formats have been tweaked to make them a little more engaging. For example, you must choose the wrong statement from a choice of three, or match up four terms with the relevant branch of science.

Professor Einstein tablet
Simon Hill/Digital Trends
Simon Hill/Digital Trends

At the easiest difficulty level, my eight-year-old was able to answer a lot of questions correctly, and the multiple-choice format allows for a process of elimination approach. You can also ramp the difficulty up beyond my scant scientific knowledge, so there should be enough of a challenge there for teens. Hanson Robotics recommends Professor Einstein for ages 13 and up, but we think younger kids will get a kick out of it, particularly if they’re developing an interest in science.

My daughter was fascinated by Einstein at first, but immediately got bored with the app because she’s only five. She later confided that she found Professor Einstein a bit creepy, and he can be. There’s a small camera in his tie which enables him to see people and he can obviously hear, so he does turn to address whoever poses a question and sometimes points his finger at you. Although he’s clearly a caricature, he has realistic eyes and often pulls distinctly odd facial expressions. The fact they’re accompanied by a lot of loudly whirring motors doesn’t add to the illusion.

Beyond the lectures and quizzes, you can also play a couple of games. Mag-Neato is a puzzle game based on magnetism and momentum. Launch Lab challenges you to control a rocket in space, and will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played Asteroids. There’s also a series of mini games based around various scientific concepts. One top-down scroller challenges you to guide a bat through a maze using echo-location, another is based on the idea of combining different colored lasers to find a target color.

Einstein elevates the presentation, but can feel like a side prop when he should be the main event.

The games in Stein-o-Matic are a mixed bag. Most of them are accessible and relatively fun, but a few, like the one where you must deflect asteroids by dragging the moon around the earth, are an exercise in frustration. They’re intended to encompass scientific concepts in a fun package, but our eight-year-old actually preferred the data cards and questions to the games.

For each profile you create (you can create up to five), you gain points by completing activities, earning a word of praise from Einstein and advancing up the “Genius levels”. The well-designed app has a mildly addictive hook that keeps you coming back for more, but, while Professor Einstein elevates the presentation, he can feel like a side prop when he should be the main event.

A misunderstood genius?

During a conversation with a colleague on quantum mechanics, Einstein reportedly said “I can’t be sure that I understand you because you are using the wrong words.” Unfortunately, the robot Professor Einstein failed to understand us on countless occasions, but not because of semantics.

When he’s offline, Professor Einstein is severely limited. You can say “Question” and then ask him how he is, or say “Hey Professor” and then tell him to take a walk or stick out his tongue. It’s a problem we’ve encountered before, with the Cognitoys Dino, which employs IBM Watson as its brain. You need to be able to go online to get the best from Professor Einstein.

If you link Professor Einstein up to your Wi-Fi connection, then you can ask him a number of different questions and he’ll search for an answer. Queries are encrypted and routed to the cloud where Hanson Robotic’s AI formulates an answer. Einstein can tell you who he is, crack a terrible joke, or explain a trapezoid or a dynamo. At least he can in theory. In practice, we found him very clunky. You have to say, “Hey Professor” to get his attention, then wait for him to respond before posing your question.

Sometimes he would be unresponsive for a few seconds, before responding “Yes, that’s me!” Even with clear enunciation, we often got a confused or negative response to our queries, or, more often, a request to repeat the question. My kids are used to Alexa, because we have an Amazon Echo, so they understand the importance of phrasing and clarity, but Professor Einstein simply isn’t as capable. We got a software update that seemed to improve his responses slightly, but overall, conversations with Professor Einstein were a real disappointment.

Volume is another issue. Professor Einstein talks quite loudly and he doesn’t seem to have a volume control, which is an odd omission.

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Professor Einstein is available exclusively on eBay for the next two weeks at $250. From August 6, you’ll be able to buy him at Amazon or www.professoreinstein.com for $300.

If you’re going to spend that kind of money, then you really want a responsive robot. Reflecting on our time with Einstein, most of what we liked was actually in the app, he just served as an extremely weird prop. If Hanson can improve his conversational skills, then he could help inspire kids to a career in science, but for now we’d pass on the Professor.