It looks like Meccano woke up.

At the Digital Life show in New York last week, the Spykee demo guys were seen and heard discussing the value of being able to conduct business in New York while “on your computer in Paris.” Clearly, most eight-year-old boys aren’t going to find this next-generation concept of telecommuting as compelling as the neon-like green light tubes that wrap Spykee or the ability to spy on a sister and her friends during a slumber party.

In our writeup, Missing the Point with a Potentially Game Changing “Toy,” we asserted that the low cost and durability of this technology convergence was going to have a big impact on the consumer robotics world. Based on the monologue in the video, it seems that Meccano is starting to believe that. Unfortunately, their message feels like an afterthought. The UI controller screens still look like a video game console and you still have to put Spykee together from a kit of 200 pieces.

iRobot nailed it from the beginning.

While we were appreciating and criticizing Spykee, iRobot was busy working on their own telepresence robot–ConnectR. When it was announced at DigitalLife last week, it was expressly touted as a “virtual presence” robot with working adults in mind.

Here, we take the opportunity to make a side-by-side comparison of the two technologies:

iRobot ConnectR

Erector Spykee

Sold as a complete system. Sold as an easy-to-assemble kit.
Marketed as a serious quality-of-life improvement technology. They target adults generally, and target working parents specifically. Being marketed as a “spy toy” for older kids and young teens.

iRobot ConnectR

Controller UI:
ConnectR Controller
Controller UI:
Spykee Controller UI
The iRobot ConnectR controller UI is a very simple console with a very mature design. Various functions are in different screens in order that the user has controls for the task at hand. The Spykee controller UI is cool–as it should be if one were targeting young kids wanting to play with his robot. It’s functional but it has all the problems of a typical one-screen-does-it-all application. Considering the (original) target audience this UI is good. It looks like a game.
Communication protocol based on proprietary “Virtual Presence Network.” Communication protocol based on popular Skype technology.
Automatically finds docking station to recharge when batteries are low. Automatically finds docking station to recharge when batteries are low.
Price: $499
The fine print says that the price includes one year of Virtual Presence Network suggesting the need for a subscription later.
Price: Right around $300

It’s unclear if ConnectR is programmable; however, iRobot has an established development platform called “Create” and it seems very reasonable to expect that they would soon introduce a client-side development environment that could enable ConnectR to be opened up to application developers looking to build on that platform.

It’s easy to envision a Web 2.0 UI that sits on somebody’s MySpace or Facebook page that invites visitors to jump into Spykee and have an immersive conversation with the owner of the page. Spykee is built on the Open Source Skype technology which suggests that a documented controller API is just around the corner. I suspect there are discrete commands that are IM’ed to and from Spykee by the controller UI which should make it relatively easy to hack. What’d I’d really like to see is a sanctioned document maintained by Meccano that describes this method. Until then, I can’t declare Spykee programmable.

Both robots have a place in the market. The adults that are targeted for the ConnectR trust the iRobot brand and the company’s experience in robotics. It’s an investment akin to a businessperson buying an IBM PC as opposed to an Apple in the early 80’s.

In spite of Meccano’s new push to sell Spykee to adults, kids will buy it. Parents will buy it for them. And the kids will play with their Spykee. He looks cool and Meccano has substantial experience in building durable toys that can take the torture that young children can dish out.

The fact that both companies came up with such similar ideas is a validation of the demand they perceive exists in the market. Ultimately, this fact and the release of these products has progressed human-robot interaction one more step.