Build your own bot, courtesy of iRobot

Want a robot that picks up your clothes? The maker of Roomba is out with a device that can be programmed to suit consumers' specific needs. Photos: Creating a customized iRobot

What can robots do? Fetch beer, pick up socks and empower rodents.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, iRobot will publicly release its latest product, the iRobot Create, a programmable robot for entertainment and education. The base of the Create is similar to the Scooba, the company's floor-mopping robot , and the carpet-vacuuming Roomba. It comes with wheels, motors for movement, and sensors that prevent it from tumbling downstairs or getting mired in corners.

The brushes and fluid tanks, however, have been removed. Instead, the Create comes with a series of connectors that let users attach reticulating arms, cameras and other devices. The idea is that people will devise their own tasks and write their own programs. Some add-ons can be purchased, but the company also expects that people will craft their own peripherals.

"This isn't a toy or a plug-and-chug thing," iRobot co-founder Helen Grenier said in an interview. "It is a programmable robot for students and robot enthusiasts."

Engineers at the company and students at various universities have been tinkering with the device for a while. At U.C. Davis, students used it to make a robot that picks up socks. Another Create robot navigates around the house with the use of the "virtual walls" that are sold with the company's robots. Someone else figured out how to program the robot to open a refrigerator and grab beverages.

An iteration called "Banjo" takes advantage of the chirpy, musical notes the robot emits. By holding the robot in a particular way, it will play songs. In India, iRobot engineers placed sand containers on the robot and programmed it so that it could create sand mandalas, usually prepared by monks.

Another group, meanwhile, mounted one of those plastic hamster balls on top of Create. When the hamster (or rat, as shown in the picture) moves inside the ball, the ball's rotation sends navigational commands to the robot. Thus, the rodent is driving it.

"I think it was particularly creative in an ironic way," Grenier said.

The Create costs $129.99. Most consumers will also likely pair that with a command module, a board that contains an 8-bit microprocessor. That costs an additional $59.99, said iRobot product manager John Billington.

Public acceptance, increasing technological sophistication and declining prices have allowed a personal robot market to emerge in the past few years. More than 2 million Roombas have already shipped. Competitor , meanwhile, will enter the market with a vacuum it says has a more sophisticated navigation system than is available on the market today.

Others are promoting robot toys. Ugobe plans to bring out Pleo , a toy robotic dinosaur with its own moods, in the second quarter.

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    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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