They've trolled antarctica for meteorites. They've scoured the Titanic for sunken treasure. They've built cars and computers and helped perform open-heart surgery. Now robots are homing in on the final frontier: your living room. Long the stuff of Star Wars fantasies and little-boy dreams, robots for real folks are here at last.
At the annual Toy Fair in New York City last week, the bots were everywhere. Foot-long bug bots crept across exhibit floors. Two-legged baby bots took their first toddler steps. A testy and surprisingly lifelike dinobot snapped its mechanical jaws.
Meanwhile at last week's Demo 2001, a prestigious computer- industry gathering in Phoenix, Ariz., the star of the show was iRobot, an eight-wheeled mechanical watchdog with a webcam nose that can patrol an empty house and send live video back to your website. "We're taking technology out of the virtual world and into the real world," says iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner.
O.K., but why now? Blame it on Furby, the furry noisemaker that came out two years ago and sold more than 40 million units. Or Aibo, the $1,500 robot dog that generated 40,000 advance orders in just four weeks last fall. Clearly, robots have profound consumer appeal. "The whole concept of a machine being alive is enthralling," says home-robot inventor Henry Thorne of Probotics, based in Pittsburgh, Pa. "It captures you. It thrills you deep inside." Factor in rapidly falling prices for the cameras, motors, sensors and computer chips, and you've got a trend begging to bust loose.
In this veritable robot zoo, no company is more active than Tiger Electronics. The manufacturer, based in Chicago, is releasing about two dozen robotic toys this year. At its Toy Fair showroom, motorized sea turtles and jellyfish glide through bubbling fish tanks. Miniature mice shake when they're lonely and squeal when they're hungry. A 3-ft.-long Interactive Raptor (still in prototype) is so lifelike, it flinches when you pull its tail.
What distinguishes the latest crop of robots from their strictly mechanical forebears is their ability to react to their environment (rather than dumbly obey the whims of their five-year-old masters). For example, Hasbro's B.I.O. Bugs send out radio and infrared signals to sense who or what is in the room. If it's a predator, the bug might decide to fight, gaining strength with each match it wins. Touch its antenna, and it will scurry away to flock with other bugs. "You can train them, but you can't tame them," says creator Richard Yanofsky, who claims that B.I.O. Bugs are roughly as intelligent as cockroaches.
That may be wishful thinking, and there's certainly a lot of that in the bot business. Tiger claims its Mousies can sumo wrestle, but it takes a vivid imagination to interpret their random bumping as sumo body blows. Likewise, the company's seemingly endless line of Robo-Chi toys (cat, bird, dogs, even a plant) do little more than bark and squawk at one another.
Can any of these robots perform any useful work? Yes, but for a price. You can buy robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers for $700 to $2,000, and by December, Procter & Gamble expects to be marketing automated floor cleaners to consumers under the Convenience Companions label.