Robots eye a new home: yours

Engineers unveil a new generation of robots for the home. But are consumers ready?

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A parent away on a business trip wants to read her children a bedtime story, and watch them, too. She sits in front of her laptop PC, goes online, and soon gets in touch with her babysitter.

Back home, a robot comes to life.

From a personal Web site, the mother directs the robot toward the living-room couch where her children are sitting.

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The automaton - don't worry, there's an older sibling right upstairs - slowly rolls on its eight treaded wheels and raises its long blue neck toward the kids. A red light blinks inside its translucent face.

With the click of a mouse, iRobot-LE transmits the parent's voice through its speakers, and sends back real-time video of her children's every move.

For busy parents on the road, this could be part of the future of child care. The iRobot-LE, now available for between $4,000 and $5,000, has microphones, speakers, and video cameras that, its creators boast, put users in two places at once. And with an online joystick, they can direct iRobot all over the house, even upstairs.

It's an early example of what some experts predict will be the major addition to the 21st-century family: a household servant capable of watering plants, chopping onions, and walking kids to the school bus.

All for the price of a high-end laptop.

"We will not rest until we put a robot in every house with a PC," says Helen Greiner, president and co-founder of iRobot Corp., the Somerville, Mass.-based robotics firm. "And we expect people will start treating him like a member of the family - or at least the family pet."

Ms. Greiner and company CEO Colin Angle set out 10 years ago to construct robotic devices for government agencies like NASA. But new technology and lower prices now have Mr. Angle and Greiner optimistically hoping to put the iRobot and his progeny in 50 million households within five to 10 years - that's if mass production proves to be feasible and silicon-chip shortages don't interfere.

They hope businesses will catch on, too. The robot, they suggest, can sit in on meetings for out-of-town employees, or even lead prospective investors on a virtual tour of a laboratory.

The projections are exciting. But according to Matthew Swanston, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association, they don't take into account broader trends in home and office technology.

"Things are evolving away from the all-in-one device, a sort of Swiss Army knife of household help, toward a house where separate parts communicate with each other," Mr. Swanston says. "It's more a Star Trek model than a Star Wars model we're seeing," he adds.

Despite dramatic changes in home electronics, the challenge for robotmakers continues to be in convincing consumers their creations are worth the higher price tag.

"The price and the function are the major obstacles," says Roger Gilbertson, president of Mondo-tronics, a robotics firm in San Rafael, Calif. "It's got to be useful and easy to use, which just isn't the case yet."

Few of today's robots perform more than one function. Companies like Husqvarna sell robotic lawn mowers and a number of firms carry automated vacuums. Some models have grown in popularity. But experts question whether even the most gadget-friendly consumer will plunk down $3,500 for a one-dimensional device.

"Until the machine has versatility, it will be in the realm of the hobbyist," says Mr. Gilbertson. "It's got to have the ability to do different things, like wash carrots, take the dog for a walk ... or serve as a doorman by recognizing faces."

Experts credit the early popularity of the iRobot to its mobility - particularly its ability to traverse a carpet-covered staircase. But even the average living room can trip up the most sophisticated machine.

Little things like wrinkles in a rug or a jutting chair leg are a robotic engineer's nemesis. The machinery needed to navigate around them comes at a high price.

"The underlying technology is still very expensive," says Rob Enderle, vice president of desktop and mobile technology for Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Enderle, who employed a robot, bedecked in a purple tuxedo as the ring bearer in his wedding, predicts it will take between five and 10 years before there is an influx of robotic servants in the home.

"Initially, [robots] are going to be used for entertainment," he says. "You can build something with the intelligence of a pet for entertainment, but to have a servant with that level of intelligence would be impractical."

For evidence, Enderle points to toys like Poo-Chi - a small, robotic dog priced at $25 - and Sony's $1,500 automated pooch, Aibo, which barks, dances, wiggles its ears, and takes pictures.

Even iRobot has gotten into the toy business, teaming up with Hasbro to produce the My Real Baby robot, which can sense her user's emotions and react accordingly.

Entertainment-based robots are highly marketable, while functional robots receive slight attention. Most people aren't even aware they're on the market.

"I don't know that the general population knows about them because they aren't being marketed heavily," says Eric Schwartz, assistant director of the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Florida. "Until someone wants to take [a] risk, they're not going to be very popular."

Angle and Greiner hope the iRobot will change that. He could, they suggest, become a sort of automated ambassador.

"This is a first step," says Greiner, nodding at one of the models. "It's not a good business strategy to wait 'til it can do everything. The time [for robots] is now, not in the future."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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