Who could stay away from a keynote promising to demonstrate the latest in home robot technology? Not me. It doesn(i)t matter whether the robots have been elegantly crafted to delicately perform surgery on the human body or if they(i)ve been bolted together with the sole purpose of destroying anything in their path (remember the show Robot Wars?), I hear the word robot and I(i)m automatically interested. I suspect most technophiles feel the same way.
So why did iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle devote the opening minutes of his keynote at Thursday(i)s DigitalLife conference to dispelling what he perceived to be Jetsonian expectations of what robots are and aren(i)t?
Most of us came to the hand-wringing realization some time ago that we wouldn(i)t be living in glass bubbles perched on poles high above the city streets or driving jet-powered cars to work in our lifetime. Surely we could handle Angle(i)s definition of robot as an automated vacuum, floor mopper or pool vacuum.
Angle wasn(i)t taking any chances. "Say goodbye to Hollywood robots, and say hello to a little boring--but fantastically useful--robots," he said. Angle later added, "Skepticism is one of our main challenges." Fine, fine, but when do we get to see the robots?
Caveats issued and expectations adjusted, Angle proceeded with his presentation, which quickly turned more into an infomercial than a keynote. No problem with that, in fact, I wished it was more like an infomercial. He gave his company(i)s flagship Roomba carpet cleaner only a modest pile of dirt to tackle before picking it up and moving on to the less exciting floor-washing Scooba. The Dirt Dog and Verro where given only modest screen time in videos that depicted them sucking up garage-floor sawdust and water-logged leaves, respectively. What I really wanted to see was these robots going to town on some awesomely daunting patch of pet hair or pile of broken glass.
No such luck, but I did get a chance to see (and later touch) iRobot(i)s latest inventions: the gutter-busting Looj and the cycloptic ConnectR, a Roomba-like device with voice-over-IP connectivity and a digital camera mounted on top like a large eyeball.
The Looj is a flat (2.25-inch high), rectangular mobile robot designed to clean entire stretches of gutter without the need for its owner to move or reposition his or her ladder. In the video and subsequent onstage demonstration, the Looj pile-drove through fairly new looking gutters, shoving away leaves and other debris as it went. At $100, the Looj is a tempting piece of equipment, although I(i)m skeptical that it could make it all the way down the average house gutter without getting stuck (most gutters I(i)m familiar with are bent in some way or have broken gutter straps that would impede the Looj(i)s progress).
The ConnectR is an altogether different animal. Angle presented several scenarios in which its "virtual visiting" robot could be useful. In one scenario, a businessman uses his laptop to log onto a ConnectR operating in his home. Once the connection is made, the businessman can speak to whomever happens to be at his house, controlling the robot(i)s movement and camera at the same time. If his kids are in the next room, he simply drives the ConnectR over to say, "Hi." The ConnectR could be placed on a table next to a board game to allow the homesick traveler to join his family for a game of Monopoly. It could even be set in front of an open story book so that a mom or dad could read to their children before bed (as long as one of the kids turned the pages).
I laughed a little at the video, but at the same time my mind was running a list of scenarios better suited to my life. Is the dog lying on the couch again when I(i)m not home? (The speakerphone function could let me address that immediately.) Did I remember to close the living room window before leaving on a business trip? (I could call my landlord to give me a hand with that one.) Was my mousetrap successful? (This could have helped me out last year when I discovered some unwanted roommates.)
So maybe we won(i)t see a T-800 (the original model that appeared in 1984(i)s The Terminator) or even a Rosie (see The Jetsons above) anytime soon. With the Roombas(i) success (there are 2 million of them out there), I(i)m confident home robots will reach at least knee level before too long. And if they keep me from having to climb a ladder to unclog my gutters in a rain storm, who am I to look down on them?"