What is Luka Reading Robot?
This is my honest review of Luka Reading Robot, and why we love it. This post is not sponsored and we bought our original Luka for full price in 2020 (and 2.5 years later, we are still smitten with it).
If you can’t read Chinese but want to be able to enjoy reading Chinese story books with your children, then Luka is the solution. It also plays great music too! Luka Reading Robot is a clever – and super cute – owl-shaped robot which will narrate physical picture books to your family, which are written in either Simplified Chinese or English.
This official Luka AI Reading Companion manual claims that this owl will “read aloud books put in front of him, page by page, in any order” with “over 50,000 Chinese and 8,000 English picture books”. These might be the words of the manufacturer, but I’ll vouch that they’re true. Your child will be able to experience quality bilingual Chinese literature recorded by native speakers.
This post is an in-depth review of our Luka AI Reading Companion, which we bought and paid full price for online. As a family without any native Chinese-speaking parents, Luka’s been a little hero in enabling our children to read broader Chinese children’s literature, without the need for screen time, and had made borrowing Chinese books from the library a real possibility.
Luka is the flagship product of a relatively new company (started in 2017) called Ling, based in Beijing. The company was founded by an IT entrepreneur, who worked with publishers and professional narrators to develop a vast range of audio content in its cloud library. The product to date has largely aimed at the mainland Chinese audience, selling over 1 million units in three years. It appears relatively unknown outside of China.
This post will cover:
- Why we chose Luka Reading Companion
- Set up and use of Luka Reading Companion
- Key aspects of Luka Reading Robot
- Using Luka for Reading Books
- Book which are recognised by Luka Reading Robot
- Other functions of Luka (speaking, audio books, songs, games, read and record)
- Aspects we love about Luka Reading Companion
- Potential drawbacks
- Comparison of Luka Reading Robot against Le Le and other reading pes
- Q&As and where to buy Luka Reading Companion in Singapore
Note: there is a newer model called Luka Hero, which I have reviewed separately. But I suggest you stay reading this current page first, to understand what Luka is capable of.
Why we chose Luka Reading Robot?
One of the most important parts of learning a language is the opportunity to be immersed in it. For our non-heritage family, this is one of our biggest challenges. We love reading books together, but Chinese children’s books are largely out of our realm. My elder daughter can read basic characters independently (thanks to the Le Le Reading Pen, which I reviewed separately in other post here) and can read simple books to her younger siblings. However, we struggle to keep up with their combined appetite to read more complex and longer books.
I know there are plenty of great reading apps and online books with Chinese audio, but our preference is certainly reading physical books: tangible books which the children can have on their bookshelf, and pull out and just enjoy. Luka AI Reading Companion is the closest we have to enabling this.
Before we ordered Luka, I asked a lot of Chinese-speaking friends in Singapore if they’d heard of it or knew anything else similar. Most were skeptical of the concept, and a couple had even used other forms of AI-robots and felt they were largely a waste of money. Still I was intrigued. For us, the urge to get the Luka reading robot wasn’t an issue of “it’s a cool robot but not essential” but “how can I get someone to read real books to my kids in Chinese”. So we ordered one from China, waited months for the shipping, and fell in love upon opening.
In summary, it’s been a very cool addition to assist in enjoying Chinese literature with our children, and I see it being a valuable tool for parents who aren’t fluent in their Chinese reading, or who unfortunately don’t have the time to read regularly with their children.
What is in the box?
Luka comes with:
- a USB charging cord and re-chargeable battery,
- a short Luka story (written in Chinese)
- a sheet of Luka sticker
- instruction pamphlet (written in Chinese)
- sturdy storage box with cushioned lining
Set up and use of Luka
Luka needs to be paired with a phone which has the Luka Reading App installed (available for both iOS and android). The app gives Luka Robot access to your wifi, which is needed in order to read the books initially. The app also enables you to search for book titles to check if they’re Luka-approved, and also select different audio options (eg change default language from Chinese to English).
The app has an English version, and so starting up and pairing Luka was simple. The only niggle was needing to use Google Translate to read the instructions sheet from the box itself, but it was fairly simple and self-explanatory.
Key aspects of Luka
On/off: hold the tail
Volume change: turn the tail
To read books: press wing on your right
To listen to music/rhymes: press wing on your left
Using Luka for reading Chinese books
To read the book, you simply place the book on table or ground about 4 centimetres in front of Luka, and press its right wing. Luka’s eyes (containing an HD camera in forehead) will scan the cover, download the book’s audio, and within a few minutes it will begins to read the book. The unique aspect is that Luka will read whichever page the child is on, one-at-a-time. After reading the page, it gives a little soft click, indicating to the child to turn the page. It’s possible to skip pages and go backwards, and Luka will recognise where the child is at, even if turning out of order. Once a book is downloaded, Luka will recognise it whilst off-line, so it can be read in future without wifi.
Luka is very intuitive for a young child to get the hang of, and all of our children can use her independently to read and play. In fact, they’re much better at using Luka than we are (and can understand her Chinese verbal instructions), so I usually leave it to them to explore.
I would say that our children spend about 20 minutes a day with Luka reading 1or 2 short books before bedtime. On a weekend, we sometimes would play for up to an hour, and delve into longer length books.
Which books does Luka recognise?
A lot, is the answer!
We have trialled her with many things from our existing bookshelf. She knows more of them than not, especially the classical stories. It’s as simple as putting the book beside Luka, and if she doesn’t know it, her eyes will flash yellow and she says in Chinese “Sorry, I do not know this book yet!”. Then, we move on to another book.
For buying new books in Chinese, or borrowing them from the local library, I do now check the titles in advance on my phone, to ensure it will be readable at home. The list of books keeps growing daily – it’s gone from 30,000 a year ago, to well over 50,000 Chinese titles now.
I am trying to add a few personal reviews of our favourite Luka-compatible books on this blog. I’ve put a detailed list of 1000+ Luka compatible books on another page.
As a few examples in Chinese, for younger kids you can try Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol or Tatsuya Miyanishi’s Tyrannosaurus Series, or Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie. For older kids, perhaps 米小圈上学记 Mi Xiao Quan’s School Diary or Magic School Bus Chinese Series or 100 Storey House.
For wider list, check out my full Luka reading list with reviews, as we’ve read and enjoyed hundreds of books with Luka now, and I’m keep updating the reading list!
Using Luka Reading Robot for other things
Luka Reading Robot has a lot of other features which my children love as well:
- Random speaking and phrases: the first day we unboxed Luka, and after we’d read 5+ books already, one of my kids literally spent the next 2 hours sitting beside the baby owl babbling in Chinese back and forth. Apparently, the conversation was a sensible one. The only bit I could understand was when the Chinese stopped, and my daughter asked in English “Luka will you stay with me forever?”. Luka responds if her tummy is rubbed or head is patted, with cute little phases. You can also ask trivia like “What is the weather in Tokyo today?“, or “What is the time in Beijing?“.
- Song playing and podcasts: there is a “push feature” where the adult can push audio (books, songs, nursery rhymes) from their phone to play through Luka as a speaker. This has been great for us in using as bedtime music, and also to bring up “Happy Birthday” and “Clean up” music when needed. There are lots of options for this, in both Chinese and English audio.
This more I’ve researched this feature, the more impressed I’ve become. Initiaitally, I thought it was only fodder for toddlers, with no really “dancey” upbeat songs. Oh how wrong I was! There an endless around of excellent kid-friendly music and Mandarin podcasts for the whole using this function – spanning from nursery rhymes and lullabies, through to Mandarin pop and hip-hop for older kiddos. There’s also great classical music and Chinese orchestral selections which as an adult I find appealing. Not to mention the wonderful kids science podcasts!
- Record a story with your own voice: this isn’t a feature we’ve used, nor do we plan to use. We bought got Luka reading robot primarily for the Chinese audio, which is something we cannot replicate in person. However, for parents who do want to record a story in their own voice, they can snap photos of the pages of any books, and then record your voice reading each page. It’s simple to do, and then you can add extra books into your collection. I think this would be a really sweet thing for a grandparent or a distanced family member to do. I suppose a Chinese tutor could do the same thing quite quickly if there was a favourite book that the child wanted to hear.
- Games: I was hoping my kids would never discover this. But, kids being kids have a knack of really exploring all the functions of their new toys really quickly. By shaking Luka from side to side, her eyes turn into a slot machine game. Thankfully, it’s good for about 30 seconds of laughs, but doesn’t distract from Luka’s real literary purpose. There are also some Chinese idiom games hiding somewhere in Luka.
- The list goes on, with night lights, board games, dictionary, etc. See updated post here on other favourite features in addition to the basic book reading functions.
Aspects we love about Luka Reading Robot:
- Compatible with English book versions: We (obviously) have a much larger collection of English picture books than Chinese ones. We’ve discovered that for many of our classical children’s books (Harry and the Dirty Dog, Farmer Duck, Dragons Love Tacos, Dr Seuss, Dear Zoo, The Hungry Caterpillar, Babar etc) that Luka can read Chinese audio along with our English hard-copy versions. This was a fun discovery for the kids.
- Default language: in the App, you can choose to set Luka to interact with verbal commands in either Chinese or English. The default is Chinese, and we’ve left it that way, since that was our whole reason for purchasing it.
- Reading log: from the parent’s phone, the app keeps track of number of books, book covers, and time spent with Luka Reading Robot, which can be an interesting way to review how the kids spent their time
- It does a lot more than just books to immerse a child in Mandarin audio – we use it for asking random trivia questions, streaming Chinese podcasts, listening to lullabies, karaoke, playing board and card games, and even as a night light. As mentioned above, I’ve written another post on Luka’s non-reading functions!
Potential drawbacks of Luka Reading Robot
- Compatible Books: You do physically need books for your child to read them with Luka Reading Robot….. if space is a limitation, this is worth keeping in mind. We tend to borrow NLB library books to overcome this issue. Luka won’t read all books, but it’s easy to check this before you buy or borrow (the app has an ISBN scanner from the phone, which you can shoot at any book to check). I’ve noticed the titles which are unique to Singapore independent publishing houses tend to not be accessible, whereas titles published from mainland China and Taiwan, and by US published houses like Scholastic. Ladybird and HarperCollins appear to be largely included. Also remember that your existing English books might be compatible, even for Chinese audio.
- Confusing books: For book series with very similar looking covers or visuals inside (eg Meg & Mog and Meg’s Eggs) sometimes Luka confuses which book it’s reading. The solution it to turn ot off and start again. Also, if there are alternate versions of a book (eg Are You My Mother?, or The Giving Tree or Todd Parr’s World), Luka’s narration might be ever so slightly different by page, depending on which edition you have.
- Other languages: We’ve bought Luka Reading Robot for the sole purpose of listening to stories in Chinese, and only Chinese. The robot also retails in other countries (eg Germany), and has had audio tailored for different regions. The app and how it’s used differs by region too, and from what I’ve read on Amazon, the non-Chinese versions seems a lot more buggy and has less content, which is what I would expect from a product which originates from mainland China.
Questions which I promised to answer:
Is Luka Reading Robot a useful tool to increase Chinese exposure for kids and independent reading?
Luka gives children exposure to both reading Chinese books (I’d say more for the audio, than the characters) and also has other inane babble in Chinese, including responses to voice commands.
Whilst Luka does read word-for-word of the books it recognises, and a child could theoretically follow along reading themselves, mine are yet to do this. For us, Luka has been more about building a love for the literature, than character literacy. Perhaps if we got simpler books it would help, but then again, that’s why we have the Le Le Reading Pen and graded reader set, which are a systematic way to build character knowledge and repetition.
As a resource for a non-Chinese speaking parent, or for a busy Chinese speaking parent, I think this is a good addition to the bookshelf to enable wider reading. If your intention is to help a child learn to read or write, I don’t think Luka is anywhere near sufficient.
How is the audio recording quality?
It’s clear and engaging, and uses many different voices for the reading. I guess that’s how they’ve been able to create audio for over 50,000 books in the space of a few short years. Some of the books have different sound effects and background music, and some are simply the words, but all are high quality professional narrations. I like the fact that the voices are varied, both male and female, as it helps tune the ear to different speaking patterns and speeds. Whilst I cannot vouch for any “accent” issues, I understand all the speakers are mainland Chinese.
I know from our experience that Luka’s English reading is a little patchy – we didn’t buy her for this, and I’ve disabled this from my phone so she won’t break out into reading any English stories. The only exception is for some stories which are bilingual with both written Chinese and English (eg Harry and the Dirty Dog) she reads both languages in sequence. It’s not bad spoken English on the whole, but particular words (especially names, which aren’t in a dictionary or foreign terms) she has very poor attempts at!
What ages is it most suitable for? Is it easy for a 3 year old to operate the robot?
My 2 year old can use it, and my 8 year old still enjoys it to read more complex books, which would otherwise be well beyond her. It’s literally as simple as just picking a book from the bookshelf, pressing her wing, and then it starts to read. I think as long as the book itself it age-appropriate, and that the child cannot read the book independently by themselves, then Luka would be appropriate.
I found that my 2.5 year old can use it independently – but she’s quite a book worm, and she’ll happily sit and flip her way through any book without an adult needing to prompt or remind her.
Can adults set up an use Luka easily without knowing Chinese?
The app itself can be in English or Chinese. If your phone default language is English, the app will appear in English. It’s easy enough to find your way around – you’ll certainly be able to set it up and get your account working and reading books. Beyond that, there’s a bit of guess work around what all the other functions and sections do, as it seems to do a lot more than just reading and audio. A few google searches will reveal YouTube videos from other users with tips and tricks.
How’s Luka’s battery life?
Battery life is several hours. I think it depends how many books back-to-back you give, and also the amount of “new” downloading or “push” audio instructions it receives. It’s certainly long enough to use for a few days in a row, without recharging. The battery-life icon is a cute duck floating in water, and when the water is getting low, you can be sure the child will remind you to recharge it!
How is this bot different from an audio book or CD audio books?
It’s different because the child physically has the book and can turn to specific pages and have them read, in any order. The child can access all this by themselves, without asking an adult to start/stop/repeat the audio. It’s also portable, so you could take Luka on a car journey, or to the library (if you turned her down on very quiet mode!).
Luka does also have a large collection of pre-loaded audio-only books, so you can use her as an audio book speaker if kids like to listen along to such stories (which mine do some nights in a darkened room, before they drift off to sleep). We used to use a CD player for this (and also for playing Chinese kids music), but Luka has essentially replaced the need for this, and CDs don’t get lost, covers broken, etc.
Are there many compatible books to use with Luka? In your experience, can Luka read local Chinese books published in Singapore?
It reads 50,000+ books, but locally produced books from Singapore and Malaysia (like from Popular Bookstore) are less readable. Most of the library books we have borrowed can be read, likewise all the classical kids literature is there. We’ve had most success with books published by Scholastic, HarperCollins, Ladybird or else publishers in China and Taiwan. If you bought books on Taobao from China, they would probably be available on Luka, however it’s best to check beforehand.
Having said that you can always send the developers an email to update their booklist and see what happens (but I suspect given it’s not yet a widely used product in Singapore, it’s unlikely to be a high priority on the manufacturer’s wishlist). Other option would be to get a Chinese-speaking adult (teacher, friend, neighbour, grandparents) to quickly read the book and upload it yourself onto your own Luka. It takes about 5 minutes.
Where to buy Luka Robot in Singapore?
[Updated 10 July 2020]:
A team of passionate mothers are now retailing Luka in Singapore, and they have after-sales support, warranty, books for Luka, free delivery etc. So it really beats buying it through Taobao (which is how we originally bought our Luka)! Luka Reads is actually now the official distributor of Luka in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand too. The also can ship globally for online orders, if international shipping is paid. They are in the midst of some tie-ups with local Singapore publishing houses too, to enable more local books to be read. The team offers after-sales support, warranty, books for Luka, free delivery etc. So it really beats buying it through Taobao!
Luke Reads in Singapore have kindly extended a special discount to readers of my blog. Note, I don’t get any benefit from this, but you do, by way of a $20 discounted price. Purchase through their main website and enter my promo code as “Lahlah20off”.
How does Luka compare to Le Le?
They are completely different. I have reviewed Lele earlier at this page. Le Le is a carefully researched and crafted curriculum – which happens to have an audio pen – that assist a child to read characters. Each set is made with a limited number of characters, which repeat throughout the books and series. Le Le is most similar to Sage Books, in that it’s a curriculum. For Le Le, it’s the books which are the main value-add, and this is why it took 3+ years to write. The pen is a great “extra” that support a child to read the book when a parent cannot do that. I know of families who go through all 300 Le Le books and never use the reading pen at all.
Luka is essentially a smart audio book, which pairs with physical books. So for Luka, the main unique selling point is the technology where the robot can scan and read the physical books, with a massive collection of audio recordings. It can read 50,000+ books, which opens up a world of Chinese audio and reading to a non-reader (and for a parent who cannot read the language to their children). But, I don’t think it will in any way teach a child to read. It will support their exposure to spoken Chinese, and introduce new vocabulary, but it needs to be supported with some another structured learning system or curriculum (which could just be school). I doubt anyone has ever mastered English simply by listening to audio books, and same goes for Chinese!
How does Luka compare to Luka Hero?
Se my detailed post with head-to-head comparison of Luka Hero and Luka here.
In summary, both are excellent. For a native speaking family, I’d think the basic Luka is all that’s needed – this will give you beautiful narrations, and ability for children to read page-by-page for their listening pleasure. It’s great value for money.
For a less fluent family, the “point and read” function is what wins me over on the Luka Hero. It just makes the Mandarin learning journey a little bit more streamlined, and unlocks another important piece of the puzzle. We’re also really enjoying the games which can be played with the “read and repeat” function.
How does Luka compare with other optical reading devices and pens? Which reading pen or robot is right for me?
Our family has a lot of Chinese reading pens!!! If you want a head-to-head comparison, please see my earlier review here.
Different reading pens and robots suit different learning stages, ages, family situations, and intended learning outcomes. I’ve put together a diagram showing how we see them all fitting together.
My previous posts on the topic include:
- Comparison of our favourite Chinese reading pens and robots
- Review of Habbi Habbi Reading Wand
- Review of Le Le Chinese
- Review of iHuman Reading pen
- Review of eTutor Star Reading Pen
- Detailed Review of Luka Hero
- Detailed Review of non-reading functions of Luka and Luka Hero
- Detailed Review of Youdao Smart Reading Pen
Why buy this locally rather than Taobao or EZ Buy from China?
Well it’s probably cheaper (at least in Singapore). For example, Luka Hero set price is selling from the authorised retailers at S$30 cheaper than TB, and on top of that, you can use my promo code “Lahlah20off” and get a further $20 off! Additionally, buying locally has free delivery and a warranty. That’s three good enough reasons for me.
However, if you need another reason, let me share my frustration with Luka. With both Luka and Luka Hero, the information manuals were fully in Chinese. Both were very short, and didn’t explain many features of Luka. For example, in Luka’s eyes, it can show stroke order for drawing characters. Or the fact that the app can track reading goals for each child. Or that a parent can send messages for Luka to tell your child things like “It’s time to brush your teeth” or “Put me to sleep please”. None of that is in the instruction manual. But, if you buy from the dedicated local Singapore retailing team, they’re giving English instructions, ongoing customer support, and even have some workshops planned about best practice using your Luka.
As start here’s a helpful link from the local Singapore retailer with English FAQ and watch video tutorials.
Where to buy Luka Hero in other countries?
Luka Reads is the official distributor in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. For those countries, ther international shipping fee is absorbed. Through their website, it’s also possible to order into other countries, if shipping is paid. Purchase through their main website and enter my promo code as “Lahlah20off”. Thank you Luka Reads team for blessing my blog readers! (and no affiliation here – it’s a benefit for you!).
De ZiRemi bookstore is selling Luka compatible books in United Kingdom. If you quote “LAHLAHSPECIAL” on checkout for anything from their store, my blog readers will receive 10% off. This is a really kind gesture from the four sister team behind De Ziremi.
JD.com is an Chinese bookstore which ships globally, including in the US. They stock Luka at great prices, so if you’re brave enough to order through a Chinese website, you could give it a shot. Some mothers from Motherly Notes recommend this method. Otherwise the minefield of Taobao / EZ Buy is where we bought our first one from.
JoJo Learning also sells Luka in the USA.
I would love to hear from you, especially if you have experience with other similar robots to Luka It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one. All comment welcomed!
DISCLAIMER: I’m grateful that we have Luka Hero to join our family. The Luka Hero was kindly given to us by Luka Reads Singapore – since we’re existing avid Luka fans, and I’d already written several blog posts on our original Luka (which we love a lot, we we did overpay for via Taobao. I don’t want the same thing to happen to you!).
The views shared in this review are my own genuine, unbiased opinion – as is everything contained on this blog. There are no affiliations, sponsorship, commissions, behind this post nor anything on this blog. It’s a passion project, not a business.