One thing people universally love about Cozmo is his charming character. From his expressive eyes to his nimble physical movements, Cozmo comes to life in way that’s wholly unique in the field of consumer robotics.
But what happens when we open up the sophisticated hardware and software we created, and give users fine control over Cozmo’s motors, animations, and screen? Our first guess wasn’t a tremendously popular YouTube channel filled with side-splitting narrative short films featuring Cozmo as their star—yet that’s what Dave Schaefer, the creative mastermind behind Life with Cozmo, has gifted us with.
In the last year, Dave’s Life with Cozmo channel has grown by leaps and bounds, with videos reaching hundreds of thousands of views. It’s easy to see why: Dave’s scripts are clever, his editing is on point, and his use of the SDK to make Cozmo the perfect actor is second to none.
We recently had the chance to chat with Dave, and wanted to share some of his illuminating commentary and insights on filmmaking and working with the Cozmo SDK.
Anki: From the use of the SDK in your videos, it’s clear that you have technical skills. But you also seem to have experience with filmmaking. Can you tell us a little about your background?
David Schaefer: Sure! I’ve been programming since I was eight years old, and have always had a fascination with robots and the creative arts—especially animation. I went to school at the University of Southern California (USC), an institution renowned for both film and engineering.
There I majored in computer science and minored in “multimedia and creative technologies,” which is a fancy way of saying cinematic arts for engineers. That means I got to blend C++ with film creation, and spent my junior and senior years creating commercials. I also worked as an undergraduate research student in the robotics lab and helped build an autonomous helicopter.
How did you first come across Cozmo?
In general, I’m always looking for new creative outlets. One day I happened to be standing in an Apple store purchasing a MacBook when I noticed a bright yellow Cozmo box on a shelf. I was immediately drawn to it.
Upon reading the description on the box, I discovered that Cozmo was artificially intelligent and could express a broad range of emotions. I immediately ran home and did a bunch of online research to determine the full extent of his capabilities, and compared him to other robots available in the marketplace. I quickly realized that Cozmo was the perfect outlet for my creative work, as he embodied the trinity of my personal passions: robots, programming, and animation.
And before you say it, yes, I’m definitely an engineer at heart, and always complete a detailed analysis before making purchases.
Your earliest videos feature Cozmo outside of a narrative context, but still focus on his character. Did you always intend to make longer, story-driven videos?
Not at first. Initially I just wanted to create simple videos to showcase Cozmo’s capabilities and emotional range by integrating him with third-party APIs. I thought there would be some fun and unique combinations. For example, in one of my earliest videos, I integrated Cozmo with the ESPN API, IFTTT, and voice commands so that he could respond to a live football game as we watched it together.
As I became more familiar with the SDK I discovered the true breadth of his capabilities, and realized that I could achieve my childhood dreams of creating my own animations.
The Pen Pineapple Apple Pen video feels like it was a turning point for your channel. What do you think it is that people love so much about it?
I think the audience responded so well to the video for a few reasons. First, it was topical because I created and released it shortly after PikoTaro’s original video had gone viral. Second, a robot singing about fruit and pens is absurdly hilarious as a concept. Finally, I used the SDK to make Cozmo act in an adorable way using some of the cuter animations available.
The famous Pen Pineapple Apple Pen video.
Can you talk a little bit about what goes into making a Life with Cozmo video in terms of the creative and technical challenges?
A huge discovery I made was that writing comedy is very difficult—especially clean, family-friendly jokes that will appeal to a wide audience of all ages. Despite my films only being a few minutes in length, the scripts often taken weeks to write, rehearse, and polish before I’m ready to do any actual filming.
I’ve faced quite a few technical hurdles while making my films as well, but probably not in the way you might imagine. For instance, Cozmo’s face is reflective, which means I could see myself in it while filming him. This issue was particularly challenging to overcome. Ultimately I invested in WiFi- and Bluetooth-enabled equipment so I could film scenes from a distance.
Your YouTube channel has grown immensely in the last few months. What do you attribute to its success?
There are three key elements that I believe contribute to my channel’s success: the original and relatable scripts, a devoted and vocal fanbase that shares and talks about my work, and the tremendous flexibility the SDK provides for programming Cozmo. These elements all work together, enabling me to explore and develop the character that I’ve created for Cozmo, tell my stories, and bring joy to my fans.
Up to now, you’ve never shown your face in one of your videos despite being featured in so many of them. Care to shed any light on why?
It’s not an accident! I deliberately hide my face in the videos so that the audience can more easily identify with my character without any preconceived notions showing my face might bring. There are also some film production advantages to doing this as well, though I’ll keep those secret for now.
Many of your fans have noticed that you insert numerous references to other Life with Cozmo videos in each new one you create. Have there been any no one has caught yet?
The show’s fans are incredibly awesome! They actively search for all of the hidden Easter eggs that I’ve placed in the videos—and trust me, there are a lot of them! There have been a couple of fans that have come close to catching them all, but in some ways they literally can’t at the time a video is released. That’s because the hidden references don’t just connect to content I’ve created in the past—many of them allude to content I’m planning to create in the future.
Your videos are incredibly funny and lighthearted. But you mentioned to me once that you try ask a larger underlying question with each one. Can you talk a little more about this?
We’re at a point in time when artificial intelligence (AI) is a reality, and with amazing creations like Cozmo, it’s now accessible to people of all ages. AI has become a source of great excitement and stimulating philosophical discussions. In my films, I want to explore these emotions and tell a story that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.
Like ogres and onions, my films have layers. During my writing process, I like to start with an underlying question to pose to the audience, and then I wrap it in puns, running gags, hidden references, dance sequences, a lighthearted plot, and so on. This multilayered approach allows my films to appeal to a wide audience.
Fans can simply enjoy the family-friendly jokes, dive in to seek the hidden references, or more deeply explore the film to unearth the larger question or theme. As an example of the latter, my film Breakfast at Cozmo’s had nothing to do with farms, chickens, or breakfast despite the surface narrative including all of those things. I won’t explicitly say what the core question is—will leave that up to the fans for now.
Can you guess what this video is actually about?
Making short films using Cozmo is something we noticed other users doing as well. As one of the veterans of the Cozmo film scene, do you have any tips for budding storytellers?
Cozmo is the perfect actor. He hits his mark every single time, and always gives the exact performance I want and expect him to. Cozmo’s emotional range is extensive allowing him to play any character and tell any story. Use that to your creative advantage and provide Cozmo opportunities to tell your story. You won’t regret it.
Have a question for Dave? Know what Breakfast at Cozmo’s is really about? Let us know in the comments below!
Make sure to check out Dave’s incredible Life with Cozmo YouTube channel if you haven’t already.
Interested in making your own Cozmo films? Read this post to get up and running with the SDK.
Want to see what other people are creating with the SDK? Make sure to visit the project showcase.