Roomba takes Frogger to the asphalt jungle

A tricked-up robotic vacuum cleaner helps bring the early video game to life in the streets of Austin. Photos: Roomba's Frogger rumba

AUSTIN, Texas--It's almost two in the morning and I'm standing in the middle of Austin's Sixth Street, hoping that I'm not going to get hit by a car.

On the other hand, I am hoping--as are 15 or so other people standing nearby--that one of the cars that keep rushing by will crush the tricked-out Roomba robot vacuum cleaner that Make Magazine associate editor Phillip Torrone and Eyebeam R&D fellow Limor Fried are sending back and forth across the street and through traffic.

This is Roomba Frogger, a modern, geek version of the famous 1981 video game "Frogger," in which players had to get a frog across a street without it getting crushed by a car or truck.

Roomba's Frogger fandango

But here, in front of one of Austin's 19th-century landmarks, the gorgeous Driskill hotel, Torrone and Fried and a growing crowd have already gotten their Roomba, dressed in a cut-up green T-shirt to look like a frog, across the street several times without serious incident. Now everyone is cheering for imminent impact.

This is Make Magazine--a quarterly journal that pays homage to do-it-yourself technology hacks--come to life. Torrone and Fried have taken a production Roomba, an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner from iRobot, and modded it so that it is Bluetooth-enabled and controllable from a laptop computer.

Vacuum cleaner as game celebrity
About an hour and 40 minutes earlier, Torrone had showed up in Second Life Herald founder Peter Ludlow's suite at the Driskill, Roomba in hand. Everyone was in town for the South by Southwest conference here, and many had come from the party commemorating the closing of the conference's five-day Interactive event.

As Torrone and Fried begin setting up the Roomba--attaching Styrofoam cups to serve as legs and wrapping it in a frog-green T-shirt--everyone jokes about what will happen once it is sent into traffic.

"If the (Bluetooth) range works out," Torrone said, "we'll take turns running it until it dies, the cops show up, or both."

Around the suite, the declaration "Oh, this is going to be great" is heard again and again.

"I was like, this is a really bad idea. Let's do that!"
--Limor Fried, R&D fellow, Eyebeam

Just days ago, Torrone had hosted what he called the "first-ever underground Roomba cockfighting tournament" during the ETech conference in San Diego and had had hundreds of people furiously betting money on the outcome of the two-Roomba battle.

And on Monday night, he and Fried had brought a Roomba to a SXSW party and played Roomba pool, pitting the robot against people to see whether man or machine could sink more balls faster.

Now, they asked themselves, what could they do next?

"I said, you know what we can do? We can do real-life Frogger," said Torrone.

"I was like, this is a really bad idea," said Fried. "Let's do that!"

For a while the two huddle in a corner of the suite, tinkering with the Roomba and getting it ready. Soon, as the rest of the group gathers around, the robot suddenly emerges in the middle of the room, spinning in circles.

Things are looking good.

"Get pictures of it now because it's not going to look like this" for long, said --sex toys that are controlled remotely via the Internet.

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