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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
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 Kyle Machulis, an expert in "teledildonics"--sex toys that are controlled remotely via the Internet.

Quickly, several in the group begin a betting pool pegged to the big questions of the moment. How many lanes will the Roomba make it across before it's crushed? What kind of car will hit it? The consensus seems to be that it'll get hit after one journey across the four-lane street.

Soon Torrone and Fried say they're ready. Fried grabs the Roomba and heads for the street below. Nine people go to the edge of the fourth-floor suite's balcony to watch.

But down on Sixth Street, there is no communication between the Roomba and Torrone's laptop four stories up. So Fried grabs her cell phone and convinces him to come down to run things from street level.

Roomba does traffic rumba
A man with a British accent and signs of inebriation wanders over to where Fried is fiddling with the Roomba and asks if the nondescript frog moves around and whether it vacuums while it moves.

He has no idea how spot on he is.

As Torrone arrives, he explains that his Bluetooth transmitter doesn't have the range to reach the balcony, but from the street it should be no problem.

And suddenly, the Roomba Frogger, which was sitting in the street, just up against the curb, is moving. Slowly, and toward the center of the street. It reaches the middle, spins around, and Torrone calls it back.

One of Fried and Torrone's biggest worries was that the police would show up and arrest them. But as the Roomba rolls from lane to lane, two cops ride by on bicycles. They don't stop to bust anyone. Instead, they beep their horns. Everyone laughs.

Everyone thought the Roomba would suffer a quick death, but it is far more resilient than anyone expected. Car after car zooms by, and many roll directly over the robot, which manages to avoid getting hit by the wheels.

One car does clip it, though, and a loud "Whoa" rings out from the group on the balcony and the growing number of people gathered on both sides of the street.

Gradually, the Roomba makes it back and forth four times, then five, six and seven.

But on about the 10th trip--15 minutes into the game and after crossing a total of 40 lanes of traffic?a white Toyota 4Runner approaches and, unable to avoid the robot vacuum cleaner, crushes it.

The timing is probably good, because as Fried and Torrone gather up the nearly dead machine, a local security guard is standing nearby on the phone and calling the cops. And so everyone scatters or heads back into the hotel, walking into the lobby as if nothing had happened.

And as they do, Fried and Torrone are already imagining their next Frogger mission and how they could make it better.

"I did learn something," Torrone said. "If you're really going to do this, you probably need to use (radio frequency)."

Fried agreed.

"I can totally build a 500-feet RF link," she said. "Yeah, I'm on it."

Back in the hotel suite, Ludlow assessed the mood: "Once you get a taste of Roomba Frogger, you can't get enough."

As people in the suite laughed, shouted and talked about what they'd just witnessed, Torrone summed up his evening.

"We had a lot to drink before we got here," he said, "but there's nothing to sober you up like steering a robot through traffic."