CES: Remote presence is the name of the game
Toys and vacuums are old news; the big new robots this year seem to be telepresence robots. iRobot, Wowwee, and Spykee all brought their new internet-controlled devices to demo video, audio, VoIP, Bluetooth, media players, and other capabilities.
Spykee was introduced at Digital Life last fall and it's already got a group of siblings. Designed by Meccano, the same company that produces the Erector set, all the Spykee versions come as a kit that has to be assembled. The original can be internet controlled from anywhere in the world and can be used for making and receiving Skype VoIP calls as well as playing digital media. Spykee Cell, a smaller version, uses Bluetooth to communicate with your cell phone and can control your iPod Nano or iPod Touch. Since it uses the Bluetooth connection with your cell phone, you can basically use it as a Bluetooth "headset" -- leave your phone on the desk and talk directly to your robot instead.
Wowwee's Rovio looks like a black UFO on Wowwee's popular new omni wheels. Controlled over the Internet, It has the standard camera, two-way speaker and microphone, and video link. What I think is most interesting about Rovio is that it uses Evolution Robotics's NorthStar navigation system to find its way around its environment to return to its docking station whenever it needs recharging. That's a really good partnership between those two companies.
iRobot had its ConnectR telepresence robot on display, though it wasn't being demoed. They are still in the process of identifying beta users for its pilot program that will help them determine what ConnectR will be used for and what features should be developed before the final release. Right now they think the major users will be the "sandwich generation" (middle-aged people taking care of both kids and elderly parents) who want to be able to check up on family members when they can't be physically present, and parents on business travel who want to call home in a more interactive manner.
Is telepresence really the next big thing? Wowwee and Spykee are pitching these robots as toys that kids will want to guard their rooms, play music, and spy on siblings; iRobot 's ConnectR is being pitched to a much older audience but is still waiting for a pilot program to tell them how this technology will really be used. Are these companies guessing right?