Robots toddling from factories toward home and office; 'Dumb' robots selling to Rolls Royce crowd

The soft-drink-shaped robot stood in front of the new supermarket, flirting with pedestrians. It moved about on short legs, turned its head with its flashing eyes, and talked.

It was manipulated by remote control. An employee of the soft-drink company sat in a nearby van, providing directions and voice. The robot was being used as a sales gimmick to attract customers to the store-opening.

With much of the public hot on the subject of industrial robots, some businessmen have been taking advantage of the stir. Why limit robots to the factory, when they could work in the home or for your business as well?

The catch is, moving robots are not as technologically well developed as industrial robots. So companies making mobile robots are sticking to remote control for now, but adding as many technological frills as possible. These ''robot toys'' with ''high tech'' features can vacuum, act as a personal computer, use their head as a video camera, and respond to voice commands--even if they are powered by the same kind of controls used to navigate model airplanes and ships.

But the public doesn't seem to mind. If the robots don't run under their own steam, at least they look like they do. And the few companies producing remote-control robots are watching their business pick up.

In 1980 Android Amusement Company in California came out with a robot that served beverages. Run by remote control, the DC I (Drink Caddy I) had a water barrel trunk, Sweetheart cup-dispenser arms, a radio, serving tray, a compartment for canned drinks, a place in the back to store bottled drinks, and an ice bucket head. Android's president, Gene Beley, says he marketed the robot through a Beverly Hills store that sold expensive knickknacks. ''DC I retailed for $6,000 . . . but we only sold a trickle of those,'' Mr. Beley says.

Now Beley's DC I waiter has metamorphosed into the DC II home entertainment center. The DC II, still remote-controlled, contains a color TV in its chest, a radio inside, and cassette and eight-track tape players. It still has the tray in front, ''to hold, say, an Atari home computer,'' Mr. Beley says. With the Atari, the built-in TV acts as the computer's video screen. The 4-foot, 5-inch robot is sleek, with a round head. ''Its fiberglass body has curves like a Corvette,'' Beley sighs.

Those curves and what's in them run at a base price of $8,600. Include all the features and the price is about $12,500. If you don't want to buy, you have the option to rent--at $300 for three hours, or $500 to $750 a day.

Android has exported its DCs to Japan, England, Australia, and South Africa. It is about to set up a distributer in West Germany. At the moment, the company is selling to the Rolls-Royce crowd. ''Sales were hurting in our first year, but now we are doing fairly well . . . we're ready to expand,'' Android's president says. The next feature of the DC II will probably be voice synthesis, Beley adds. The company is still privately owned and prefers to keep its assets and sales confidential.

David Colman, president of the Robot Factory in Woodland Park, Colo., sells his remote-control robots to amusement parks and companies for trade shows and conventions. He markets them as a novel kind of ''sales rep'' to boost a business. His robots are custom made and come with options such as a brochure dispenser, balloon inflator, pincer hands, rotating dome head, microcomputer, video tape recorder and monitor, and voice-activated pulsating lights.

Business is good for the company. Originally the Robot Factory leased its robots, but found a switch to sales more profitable, Colman says. ''A year ago there were just three of us and now we are nine,'' he adds. The Robot Factory orders its parts from around the United States, but assembles them in Woodland Park. ''In the last two years I've sold 200 to 250 robots; recently we shipped out eight in one week,'' Mr. Colman said.

Apparently, the company is past the venture-capital stage. ''We get people offering funds, but frankly we're not interested--we really don't need them,'' says the company president.

A bit more utilitarian than robots serving drinks or selling products is Jerome Hamlin's ComRo I. This robot made its debut in the latest Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. It operates two ways, by hand-held remote control, or by a programmable microcomputer in the robot's head. ComRo I could make life a little easier with its built-in vacuum cleaner, wireless telephone, digital clock, black and white TV, and manipulator arm that can lift up to 10 pounds. The price for such ease, however, is $15,000.

But its purpose really isn't to make life easier, says Mr. Hamlin, who built ComRo I in an abandoned garage. ''It's basically a toy--more recreational than practical.'' So far, Hamlin has sold two ComRo I's to Japan and one to Saudi Arabia. The product may be more technologically advanced than the other robots, but its sales seem to be trailing in the dust.

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