Modular robot toys get it together at CES

From PhD project to CES: Modular Robotics comes to the confab with its robot construction kit.

LAS VEGAS--Say what you want about the cool panoramic cameras and futuristic augmented-reality technology on display at CES' Eureka Park.

Modular Robotics' Cubelets Paul Sloan/CNET

The reality is everyone here loves robots--at least judging by the crowd of people at the Modular Robotics booth today.

Modular Robotics is a Boulder, Colo.-based startup that has created a robot construction kit that lets kids--or adults, judging from those here--build a robot by snapping together powerful cubes, or what the company calls Cubelets.

Each Cubelet has a different function. Black ones, for instance, are sensors, and the colorful ones are "thinking" Cubelets that react to the senors. You control your robot with hand gestures.

You can start simple and add blocks to give your robot specific functions. You can make your robot drive when your hand comes near it. You can build one that knows to stop before it gets to the edge of a table. You can construct one that chases things.

"By snapping the cubes together and building a physical robot, you are also building its brain," said Eric Schweikardt, who's the design director and creator of the product. "Kids can build robots that have specific behaviors."

A long journey
Building the company has hardly been as easy. The idea grew out of Schweikardt's PhD thesis when he was an architectural student at Carnegie Mellon University. After his project got attention from a blogger, people got in touch and wanted to buy the Cubelets. So, he and his advisor, Mark Gross, who still teaches part time at Carnegie Mellon, set out to commercialize Schweikardt's creation.

They won a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, set up in Boulder, and Schweikardt went about learning how to make a product and build a business.

Eric Schweikardt of Modular Robotics Paul Sloan/CNET

"Hardware is just really hard," Schweikardt said.

Building the prototype was the easy part, he said. The challenge was figuring out how to do it all in a way that could make the robots affordable. The prototype for a single Cubelet was $340. He needed it to be $10 in order to make a viable business. (A kit of six now sells on Modular Robotics' Web site for $160.)

A friend, Bunnie Huang, organized a geek tour to China, and in 2008 Schweikardt and 10 or so others went off to the country--all with various prototypes in hand--to learn the ins and outs of dealing with factories. They toured 30 factories, and Schweikardt scoped them out not just for quality but for human rights records and environmental concerns. He was also superconcerned about his product getting ripped off. So in addition to getting a good lawyer, he made sure the parts of each Cubelet would be made in separate factories, eight in all.

But the assembly all takes place in a house-turned-office in Boulder.

"Engineers are upstairs, and the living room and dinning room is for assembly," he said.

The company has taken "beta" orders that it has used to help fund the company, which now has 14 employees in all. It has tried (with some success) to hide from the press because it has on occasion been bombarded with requests it can't fulfill. Now, it's taking pre-orders for delivery in a few months.

Schweikardt says he has the manufacturing processes in place so that the company can amp up production by 10 times over the course of this year should demand be what he expects. The company hopes to make 14,000 units a month by the end of year.

Coming to CES, he said, is a coming out of sorts for his quirky Cubelets, since now the company wants the business.

Check out my video of the Cubelets in action.

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