Headquartered in Silicon Valley, the Readybot Challenge is a non-profit research group composed of senior engineers and designers from the networking, motion control, ergonomics, and software industries. Their mission: to build a robot that can clean a kitchen.
Earlier this year, WowWee debuted its first practical (and really cool-looking) robot Rovio. The robot sports a complete mobile telepresence pack including camera, microphone, and speaker. It’s WiFi enabled and provides audio and video streams via a web interface it serves up over the internet. You can also control the robot over the internet and take advantage of some advanced navigational capabilities.
Rovio leverages Evolution Robotics’ NorthStar 2.0 system which is a clever navigational system based on following a light pattern projected on the ceiling–hence the North Star metaphor. With such a system, the robot can play back recorded routes very accurately.
Robot Central covered other telepresence robots as they try to move into the consumer mainstream.
Rovio will be generally available sometime in the summer and will sell for about $300. This will probably coincide with the release of iRobot’s ConnectR robot which is still in its pilot phase.
There was this Greek guy from Alexandria named Heron who lived in the first century A.D.. He invented a toy called an aeolipile, which means “wind ball” in Greek. It was a metallic ball with two curved tubes coming out at opposite ends of it. The idea was that you would fill it with water and heat it up over an open flame and steam would come out of each of the tubes causing it to spin around on a perpendicular axle. With just this much more creativity, Heron might have discovered the power of steam for real applications instead of using it to power a novelty toy. Dionysius Papin published plans for a high-pressure steam engine more than one-and-a-half THOUSAND years later in 1690 and it was built only eight years after that by Thomas Savery. Where would we be today if in the first century A.D. Heron or anybody who had seen the wind ball had thought about using steam to do more than spin it?!
Humanity, it seems, missed an opportunity. What’s worse is that we may be on the verge of missing one again.
Erector introduced its newest product at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. They unveiled a seemingly average robot kit called Spykee. It’s a kit being marketed as a kid’s remote-controlled “spy robot” toy. The six different hobby and electronic toy sites I visited all pretty much said the same thing.
The fact is that Spykee is a fantastic robot with one fatal flaw that might make it a modern day aeolipile.
Spykee has a WiFi connection to the internet and is controlled from a remote workstation. He has a camera, microphone, speakers, and a stable mobile platform. Users of the robot can communicate with people in the vicinity of the robot using VoIP. Unlike the SPC-101C, Spykee sells for right around $300. The android robot SPC-101C sells for ten times that much at about $3,000. Sure Spykee doesn’t have actuated arms and he can’t do flips, but I bet Spykee can be thrown down the stairs and survive. I doubt SPC-101C could survive that. Not only is Spykee a consumer-grade robot, he’s a consumer grade robot designed for kids!
Some advanced features include motion detection, audio / video recording capabilities, email notification, and autonomous return-to-base logic for a recharge when the batteries are low.
Okay, so all that sounds cool. What’s the fatal flaw?
Spykee is not programmable.
- Personal robots have been struggling to become a part of the mainstream because the platforms have been too primitive or too expensive. Exacerbating the problem is the many disparate platforms and the limited computing resources available to on-board software. A client-server model that leverages the computing resources of a desktop computer and the situatedness of a physical robot is the ideal combination that also allows developers to stick with the tools they know.
- You could have a WiFi enabled robot, but you’d either have to build it yourself like the guys at WifiBot.com did or straight up buy one from them. I guarantee it ain’t gonna go for 300 bucks and it ain’t gonna be as durable as Spykee. Furthermore, the developers who are going to write the killer applications for robots don’t want to build ‘em!
- Great innovations occur when different disciplines converge. In this case, I assert that most programmers have a favorite language from C++ to PHP, most have a favorite IDE, and many think in terms of the applications for their software. If a company like Meccano opens up an API to Spykee, they’ll instantly have a huge potential army of engineers coming up with novel and likely marketable applications for Spykee.
Even without any API it seems that Erector’s marketing machine could sell to a more mature consumer. It seems that without any code changes, the first killer app for Spykee is simply a telepresence robot. I’d like to have a few of these and send one to my mom who lives 100 miles away and one to my daughter who is in college 12 hours away. I and or anybody else could pop-in for a more enjoyable immersive visit than just a phone call. Imagine the Louvre having several of these in their lobby and you could go to a web-site and enter your credit card number for 30 minutes of looking around. BAM! There’s a startup. A web-site with a UI to control these Spykees.
Nope. Nobody seems to get it. I’ve not seen the word telepresence associated with Spykee anywhere. Instead, I’ve heard it trivialized by being called a “radio-controlled” toy and the ultimate peeping-tom spy–nevermind seeing the potential as being a ground-breaking mass-market robotic platform with applications we haven’t thought of yet.
I hate to think that I’ll just need to wait for hackers to crack this and create an API for me.
In the meantime, I believe this is going to be a hot product for this Christmas. In my research, I came across some sites and prices you might find interesting:
- Horizon Hobby sells it for $299.99 and will have them “early November.” These are the guys that called it “radio-controlled.”
- Tower Hobbies sells it for $246.99 and will also have them available “early November.”
- Fat Brain Toys is selling for $369.95 and will have them available around the same time.
- Amazon will be selling it the earliest on October 22 for about $279.99.
- Hobbylinc Hobbies will be selling it for $273.89 in “early November. “
You’ll get another chance to see Spykee before he’s available for sale at Digital Life on September 27-30 where Erector will be in booth 730.