In the Will Smith movie "I, Robot," the robots are humanoid and menacing. In the real world of you and me and the company iRobot, the machines are much more...ordinary.
The Roomba 560 vacuum cleaner from iRobot, seen here, is typical of commercial robots at the dawn of the 21st century--it's a bit of a drudge. But that's also why the company has sold more than 3 million of the autonomous floor-cleaning bots, the first of which appeared in 2002; they've got a job to do, and they do it well.
And you can expect a lot more chore-minded robots moving in to homes and workplaces in the not-too-distant (and not-so-sci-fi) future, as prices come down and capabilities go up. (The Roomba 650 sells for $380.) NextGen Research has estimated that the worldwide market for consumer-oriented service robots will hit $15 billion by 2015. Says Paolo Pirjanian, CEO of software maker Evolution Robotics: "We want floor care to be the same as the sprinkler system for the lawn--set it up once, move on, forget about it."
Tackling the dull, dirty, routine maintenance tasks, iRobot has done well for itself among U.S. consumers and is making gains overseas, even to the point of inspiring Roomba knock-offs aplenty in places like Hong Kong.
Besides the Roomba and variants (for workshops and for pet-filled households), iRobot has robots for washing the floor (the Scooba), cleaning the pool (the Verro), and getting the leaves out of the gutters (the Looj, seen here in action--the price ranges from $70 to $130).
The company also has a well-established government and industrial division, best known for the PackBot robots used for finding and neutralizing explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Robots are helping out in the yard, as well as in the house. This is the LB3210 Evolution, one of the latest models in the LawnBott line of lawn mowers from Kyodo America. It cuts the grass on its own, and it can adapt to the particular details of a given yard. The LB3210 is priced at about $2,800, while the low-end LB2110 is about $2,000.
Back inside the house, a gadget like WowWee's $299 Rovio can help you keep tabs on things or just stay connected while you're away. It can be programmed to recognize "waypoints" that you establish so that it can tool around on its own, but like a lot of today's robots, the Wi-Fi- and Webcam-equipped Rovio is meant to be remote-controlled; you steer it around the house from your office PC or your laptop while on the road.
In addition, the robotics industry has identified elder care as a field ripe for smart gadgetry. Gear like the Rovio that provides "telepresence" could help people check in on their aging relatives and help older folks stave off isolation.
The real-world robots that look most like what we expect from the movies are from the toy industry. Humanoids like WowWee's Robosapien aim to capitalize on those expectations with a range of preprogrammed moves (and remote control) and reactions to being handled. The 24-inch-tall Robosapien V2 features "autonomous 'free roam' behavior" and "multiple levels of environmental interaction," including reactions to sounds and colors, according to the WowWee Web site.
Although these sorts of devices--and there are a lot of them--have often been something of a gimmick, they're only going to get smarter with time. Robosapien pricing ranges from $59 for the original model to $145 for the bronzed combo pack of RSV2 and Mini RSV2, shown here.
"In toys, price is king," said Jim Wyatt, director of Kablamm, which helped develop a $599 toy robot called MechRC.
Lego Mindstorms robots give the appearance of being a cross between a humanoid and an Erector set, and they're also at the intersection of two key areas for consumer robotics: toys and education.
The NXT Intelligent Brick at the heart of the $249 kit includes a 32-bit microprocessor and an array of other PC capabilities, including Bluetooth and USB 2.0 support. Users don't have to build something humanoid--the Lego Mindstorms Web site also shows a more scorpionlike bot...
...while this contraption incorporates Lego Mindstorms components into something vehicular. At the RoboBusiness conference in Boston in April, this four-wheeled robot was on display in the booth for the FIRST organization, which runs scholastic robotics competitions around the country.
As cameras and sensors continue to establish themselves in household robots, they're also bringing robotic technology to someplace consumers wouldn't necessarily expect: their next car. Right now, that technology has appeared in just a handful of higher-end models, but there's no reason to think that it won't soon be as commonplace as cruise control, power steering, and multi-CD changers.
For the 2008 model year, the Infiniti EX35, with a starting price of $34,850, showed up on the scene with a "lane departure prevention system" featuring cameras that keep an eye on roadway markings; if the cameras detect a drift, the system activates the antilock braking system on the opposite side to bring the car back on track.
The 2007 Lexus LS 460L (base price: $71,000), meanwhile, features Toyota's self-parking technology (which had appeared earlier on the Prius in Europe and Japan)--the car identifies a parking space and then steers itself into the spot, with the driver operating the brakes. Ford recently unveiled a similar Active Park Assist feature that uses ultrasonic sensors, due as an option for Lincoln MKS and MKT models later this year.
And Volvo lately has been showing off an XC60 model that uses a forward-facing laser to detect objects that might be blocking the way. If the driver doesn't brake or turn quickly enough, the car itself hits the brakes. (There's also apparently a radar-based variant.)