BOSTON Long dominated by home-cleaning gadgets, the consumer robotics market is expanding with the arrival of 'bots that can spy inside your home when you're away or arrange virtual meetings of family or friends.
Robotics experts say gadgets introduced this past week could usher more socially oriented robots into the U.S. market. The new models bear little physical resemblance to humans or pets unlike cuddlier robots embraced by consumers in Japan and South Korea. But they're intended to help distance-separated people connect, rather than perform a tedious task like vacuuming a floor.
"As these kinds of devices mature in the years ahead, I expect them to gradually become more sophisticated in terms of providing gestures, object interaction such as picking things up, and eventually moving toward a more human shape," said James Kuffner, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.
A new device by iRobot Corp. resembles the company's disc-shaped Roomba vacuum cleaner but with a webcam bulging from the top.
It's designed to enable a parent on a business trip to feel almost as if they're at home. For example, a parent could remotely send the wheeled robot into the kids' bedroom, where the children could flip open a book in front of the robot's camera, microphone and speakers. The parent can then scan the words and read a bedtime story aloud while watching the kids' reactions.
While a remote control can direct the robot from within the home, it can also be controlled remotely, using a Web connection to access a home wireless network. The user could then operate the robot with either a joystick or a computer installed with iRobot-supplied software.
Participants can hear over two-way audio speakers. Digital video streams in color one-way meaning a traveling parent could see the kids but not vice versa. Up to 10 parties can have PIN-number access to the gadget, allowing distant relatives or friends to remotely keep in touch as well as immediate family.
For now, iRobot is offering limited quantities it won't say how many under a pilot program. For $199, select participants can take the device home, test it out and offer feedback. The company, based in Burlington, Mass., says ConnectR will become broadly available early next year for less than $500.
Another product introduced Thursday at the DigitalLife technology conference in New York was developed by France-based Meccano and marketed in the U.S. by Erector, best known for its Erector Set kits. The gadget Spykee the WiFi spy robot bears little resemblance to the new iRobot product.
It has tank-style track wheels and a camera vaguely resembling a human head perched above mechanical arms. Enthusiasts who want to be able to boast that they built their own robot can configure it in three different setups.
Spykee's audio and video technology is similar to the new iRobot product's, but it's being pitched as a device to spy on your home when you're gone, check on the pets when you're on vacation, or find out what the kids are doing at home alone after school.
Spykee's makers also say the gadget could potentially help catch a home intruder if placed near a door or window. If the robot's motion sensor is triggered, it can activate an alarm, or snap a digital photo and e-mail it to the homeowner.
The robot is expected to be available beginning Nov. 27 for about $299.
Both new robots attempt to give remote users "virtual presence" a concept that's proven useful for doctors at a Baltimore hospital who rely on a $150,000 robot to remotely check in with hospital patients by sending the gadget to their bedside.
Now, similar robots at lower cost are possible in the consumer market.
"Advances in computer hardware, software, and lower-cost cameras, microphones and other sensing devices are enabling this to happen," said Kuffner, the robotics professor.
Neena Buck, a independent robotics analyst based in Cambridge, Mass., said that although the models introduced Thursday are socially oriented, they're still a far cry from the human-like robots that have caught on in Asia. But as prices come down, "I think Americans will be willing to experiment with cute-ish robots that do something like bring a family together," she said.
IRobot isn't turning its attention away from task-oriented robots. On Thursday, the company also announced the Looj, designed to clean roof gutters a messy job requiring repeated trips up and down a ladder. Looj, costing less than $100, propels itself via remote control as it sweeps out gunk. It still requires climbing a ladder to place the device in the gutter. And since Looj can't turn corners, that means four trips up and down for the owner of a home with a square roof.