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Recession trips up the robot revolution

Yes, our robot companions are still coming. But a report from NextGen Research shows that consumer-bots are vulnerable to macroeconomic potholes.

To combat a robot invasion in the movies, the hero may need some sort of high-powered superweapon. To slow one down in real life, a heaping helping of recession should do the trick.

NextGen Research on Tuesday eased back the throttle on hopes for a surge in the number of robots arriving on the home front in the near future. In its new "Personal Robotics 2009" report, the research company forecasts that the global market for personal robots will be worth more than $5 billion in 2015, up from just over $1 billion seen for this year.

Put another way, NextGen sees 9 million units being shipped in 2009, and 25 million in 2015.

That's a good rate of growth, to be sure, but the target is well off the $15 billion in 2015 that NextGen had forecast two years ago, in more favorable economic times. The change in the target figure stems mainly from a recession that has spared few, if any, sectors of the economy, but also because the personal robot business hasn't yet built on itself as anticipated.

Personal robots include those focused on specific tasks, such as iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner, along with entertainment, education, and telepresence robots. In 2009, most are single-purpose task robots or toys, according to NextGen.

"People don't have the discretionary bucks to spend on a product they already have" in another form, said Larry Fisher, research director at NextGen, based in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "They don't have couple hundred bucks to spend on another vacuum cleaner or floor washer. They're nice-to-haves, not must-haves."

Roombas tend to be priced between about $130 and $550, while iRobot's high-end Verro 500 pool cleaner lists at $999.

Still, task robots like the Roomba are likely the robots best-suited to weather a gloomy economy. "The task market is where the money is being made at this point," Fisher said. For iRobot, it doesn't hurt to also have a division focused on sales to government and industrial buyers, including the Pentagon, which has a soft spot for the company's PackBot and similar devices.

Robot toys, however fetching they may be, are especially vulnerable when consumers are pinching pennies. For instance, Ugobe, the maker of the much-hyped but pricey robo-dinosaur Pleo, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy this spring after a troubled holiday shopping season and a drawn-out development phase. (The intellectual property has since been bought by Ugobe's former manufacturing partner, according to published reports, so the Pleo itself may live on.)

Toymaker WowWee, meanwhile, hasn't gained as much traction as it otherwise might have with its Rovio telepresence robot--basically a Webcam on wheels. "Rovio did OK, but it came out with $300 price tag just as recession came on," Fisher said. A potential competitor from iRobot, the ConnectR, is still on hold.

Telepresence robots will likely take center stage in the next phase of the robot market's evolution--next as in later in the next decade, according to NextGen. Besides letting owners keep tabs on a home while they're at work or on vacation, such devices could help families keep in touch with the grandparents. Indeed, many in the industry see a huge potential for a variety of robotic technologies helping out in assistive care for an aging Baby Boom generation, in areas from communications to entertainment to rehabilitation.

Just don't expect robots to wait on you hand and foot in the near future--that sort of dexterity is well out of the reach of consumer-priced robots, as is PC-level processing power. Through the 2015 cut-off date of the NextGen report, Fisher said, "you won't see task robots with arms and legs which you can put to multiple tasks. In the short term, we don't see many task robots showing up that have arms or manipulators, or have two legs."