Robots made a big appearance at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There were home robots, robotic pets, humanoids, telepresence systems, and even a little robot to massage people’s backs. Check out the highlights:
• iRobot brought two new home robots to CES: a more powerful Roomba and a smaller Scooba washer [see photo above]. According to the company, the updated Roomba 700 series is 20 percent better at sucking up fine dirt particles and new power management software provides 50 percent longer battery life than previous Roomba generations. The new vacuum units start at US $450. The new Scooba 230, priced at $300, is 16 centimeters in diameter and 9 cm high, ideal to get into small areas such as that dreaded space around the toilet. According to the company, Scooba differs from a mop because it only uses clean solution to wash the floors, not dirty water. The robot has an active reservoir that keeps the cleaning solution and dirty water separate and it can clean 14 square meters of linoleum, tile, or sealed hardwood floors in a single session.
• iRobot was also showing off a telepresence robot prototype called AVA, which looks like an iPad on wheels. It seems that after its aborted ConnectR project -- a telepresence robot based on the Roomba platform -- iRobot is trying to catch up in the telepresence arena. The AVA prototype was quite bulky and didn't move much, but the interesting thing is that iRobot wants to allow developers to create apps to make the robot do useful things. [UPDATE: Okay, iRobot is not calling its prototype a telepresence robot, although AVA is short for avatar. BotJunkie has the details.] Watch iRobot CEO Colin Angle explaining the idea behind AVA:
• Paro, the therapeutic robot seal, was drawing lots of visitors who wanted to caress the furry creature, but another therapeutic robot was also getting a lot of attention -- and it was the robot that was caressing people. The WheeMe, created by Israeli company DreamBots, uses tilt sensors to balance on a person's back, moving slowly as its four sprocket-like rubber wheels press gently on the skin. As we wrote before, the company admits that the robot can't give you a deep tissue massage, because it's very light (240 grams, or 8.5 ounces), but it claims the device can provide "a delightful sense of bodily pleasure." It will retail for $69.
• The Fujitsu Emotion Bear is a robotic teddy bear with a camera in its nose, motors stuffed in its body, and advanced AI. The bear has 13 touch sensors and runs image recognition software to recognize people. Like Paro the robot seal, it's designed to interact with children, elderly, and infirm people, though one can imagine it could become a robot toy like the dinosaur robot Pleo or Sony's Aibo dog robot. It can move its head and paws, track people's faces, laugh, cry, and sneeze. The bear is a concept product and Fujitsu hasn't announced any plans to sell it.
• Developed by Orbotix of Boulder, Colo., Sphero is a robotic ball that you can control with an iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth. Slide your finger on a circular control to move the ball and you can play office golf or challenge a friend for a game of sumo ball. The Sphero balls change color but don't have cameras or other sensors. Some people may argue this is just a remote controlled toy, not a robot, but Orbotix hopes that by providing an easy to use open API, app developers can add new capabilities to the ball bot. No details on price and availability, except that it should cost less than $100 and hit the market later this year.
• Murata Boy, developed by Murata Manufacturing Co., is a little humanoid robot that rides a bicycle. It made an appearance at CES along with a new companion: Murata Girl, which rides a unicycle and blushes and nods her head. Both robots can balance in place or even ride along a narrow beam. Show demonstrators controlled them by waving specially designed wands.
• The Vgo robot, created by Vgo Communications in Nashua, N.H., allows remote workers to not only see, hear, and talk but also move around and collaborate more effectively with colleagues. Unveiled last June, the telepresence robot sells for $5,000 plus a service contract -- an attractive price compared to competitors such as the Anybots QB, which costs $15,000. The Vgo robot is rather short (1.2 meter, or 4 feet, tall), and one wonders how it feels to embody them. The company says that executives at Palantir Health and Orbitz have been using the robot to improve collaboration and reduce travel across multiple offices.
• Finally, my favorite robot demo was when Japanese company Cyberdyne allowed tech journalist Evan Ackerman to try out its robot suit HAL. It's not everyday you get a chance to step into a robotic exoskeleton that can sense when you want to move your legs and move them for you! Designed to assist the elderly and disabled to regain more mobility, the HAL suit is available to hospitals and clinics in Japan and rents for about $1,500 per month. Ackerman became the first person in the United States to try the legs -- and he liked them.
For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.
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Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. He’s the cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.