Putting a Net-controlled robot on 'guard duty'

Home surveillance robots can be fun--at least the Rovio is. CNET's Josh Lowensohn spent a week with this three-wheeled robot watching over his house.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
6 min read
CNET / Josh Lowensohn

Robots may be the eventual downfall of the human race, but for now, most are either cute or useful. One that exists in both categories has spent the last week lurking quietly in a darkened corner of my house, watching my every move. Did I mention I'm happy about this?

The robot in question is the Rovio, which made its debut at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. From an Internet-connected computer, you can drive the $250 robot around your house, watch it from the built-in camera, and talk to people in your house through the mic and speaker. For all intents and purposes it's a toy, but it's also got the makings of a very capable telepresence machine.

Unlike traditional Web cams, or mounted security cameras, the Rovio is mobile. It has a built-in Wi-Fi antenna and three wheels that have little wheels of their own. This design means it cannot handle stairs, but it does let it move in any direction without a lot of back and forth cornering like you'd get with a vacuum. All the while you can watch everything it's seeing in streaming VGA-quality video.

The Rovio's control system is managed entirely in a Web browser. You control all of its movements with a cockpit of controls that lets you perform a number of tasks without any special training. In other words, you don't need to read the manual.

Included is a control grid that lets you rotate the robot a predetermined number of degrees in one direction or the other. Or you can hit one of the four-way directional buttons to get it moving forward, backward, or side to side. Its big trick though is that it also lets you drag your mouse as if you were using an analog control stick, which controls how fast it moves in any one direction. This provides a very fluid-like feeling when maneuvering it around your house.

The control panel also gives you three choices for how you want its camera angled. The default has it sitting flat, but you can also have it move up a few inches (while still staying level), or going up in a 45 degree angle that lets you sneak a peak at the ceiling. Out of the three I found the middle to be the sweet spot, but I often found myself wanting something closer to a periscope that would let me control the camera on its own instead of having to maneuver the entire device.


The Rovio's wheels have wheels of their own which allow the unit to go in any direction. CNET / Josh Lowensohn

So could something like this be useful for watching over your house from a security perspective? I alluded to as much in a previous story on home security via Webcam, but in truth the Rovio has not been designed for such a purpose. For instance, it cannot record video or be setup to detect motion, or sound as some Web cams, and Web cam software are able to provide. This means it can't be set up to greet an unwelcome intruder, or alert you to the fact.

One thing it can do though is be programmed to go out on missions around your house without you having to provide any sort of telemetry instructions. Your standard tilt and pan Web cam can't do that.

This movement recording system is actually one of the easiest things to set up, although quite limited unless you're willing to shell out for additional hardware. By design it's able to record your instructions, so that you can simply click a button and have the bot re-execute them for you. Doing so requires just two button presses: one to begin recording, and another to end. You can then name it something memorable like "kitchen check."

Unfortunately, this system hinges on whether the Rovio is in range of the navigation antenna which sits atop its charging dock. This means that going outside of that range (which happens every time it leaves the room where the dock is) your instructions are lost--even though you can still control the unit over its Wi-Fi connection.

For my house, the range radius was around 25 feet, which limited the unit to my dining room. From there I could get a quick peek at both of the doors leading into my house, but that left two rooms and a hallway unseen. That's not to say you can't visit those places; as long as it has a Wi-Fi connection you get complete control. It's just that those actions that go outside of the navigation signal can't be recorded as part of the path.

As a solution, WowWee offers additional navigation beacons you can set up inside of your house that extend how far you can go with it. These cost $30 per unit and require a dedicated power source and some additional setup. Again, if you're only planning to use this in something like a large living room, you won't need to shell out. But if you're looking to buy a Rovio to autonomously cover your entire house, there are some costs involved.


Out of the box putting together the Rovio is a relative breeze. The only tool you need is a screwdriver. You also need to aim its charging base station's infrared lights on your ceiling so that the Rovio can re-find its home if it gets lost or needs to re-align itself. Setting this up takes only a few seconds, then you never have to mess with it again. You also need to download software that enables you to connect your computer directly to the Rovio and pass along your network settings.

What may be more difficult is getting it to work with your home network--at least it was for me.

One of the only problems I ran into was port management. While the Rovio worked fine from my house, I couldn't access it from work, or other computers outside of my local network without first opening up the proper ports. This can be easy or difficult depending on your router. For me it was the former since I was using Apple's Time Capsule, which does not support Universal Plug and Play--something the Rovio can make use of to very quickly open up those ports without you having to do any fiddling.

Is it worth it?

Considering that the price of a good, high-end wireless pan-and-tilt Webcam runs about the same price as the Rovio (and in some cases, even more), it's pretty neat that you can get one that does many of the same things--but with wheels. It's lacking some important home security tools like video recording, and motion, sound, and thermal detection, but it makes up for it with features like the built-in microphone and speaker.

If you've long wanted to relive childhood aspirations of becoming an expert R/C toy controller, and want to give your house a look when you're not there, this is a hearty piece of equipment that will fulfill both those needs. Just keep in mind that extending some of its advanced navigation functions to other parts of your house will cost extra. And it cannot currently handle stairs.

While I experienced some troubles getting it to work on my home router, it might end up working better with your setup. What may end up being the real hard part is getting your roommates, or significant other okay with the idea of having a robot in your house, watching your every move.

The good:
• Very little hardware setup required
• Battery is rechargeable and included (Rovio unit also heads back to its dock when it needs to recharge)
• Easy to use navigation controls that don't require software installation
• Built-in camera and microphone allow you to talk to people on the other side
• Can be used for both home surveillance, and as a toy

The bad:
• Setting up router for use outside your home can be difficult
• Does not record video, can only take and e-mail image stills
• Video is on the dark side, and built-in light doesn't help much
• Can get stuck easily on household objects
• Super bright blue LED lights on Rovio body cannot be turned off without a bit of hackery
• Limited camera angle control
• Noisy

The video: