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Kit morphs laptops into robots

Couch-dwelling beer-guzzlers can send their notebooks for refills, now that Evolution Robotics has begun selling a transformer kit that changes an average laptop into a rolling, seeing robot.

It's time to take your laptop out for a little spin.

Evolution Robotics announced Tuesday that it has begun selling the ER1, a kit that turns an average laptop into a rolling, seeing robot.

First demonstrated last spring, the ER1 package consists of wheels and an aluminum frame for mounting a laptop onto a rolling platform, a Web camera for gathering visual information, a control module and software to make the whole thing work.

Upcoming accessories will include a "gripper arm" that allows the robot to grasp and carry objects; in a popular demonstration of the arm, an ER1-outfitted laptop grabbed a beer from a refrigerator and brought it to the owner.

The major advance of the ER1 over previous consumer robot products is that it can do sophisticated analysis of visual information, said Jennifer McNally, senior director of marketing for Pasadena, Calif.-based Evolution. Show a CD cover to the ER1's camera, and it can recognize the disc and cue it up from a networked music appliance. Wave a beer bottle in front of it, and it knows what to look for on its trip to the kitchen.

"The functionality centers around its ability to see," she said. "The difference between a robot and a computer is that the robot has sensors outside the keyboard and mice, and it can take action based on that."

Possible uses include remote security and monitoring. "You could go to work, leave your laptop on and connected to the Internet, and make sure (a visiting) contractor arrived on time," McNally said.

Partly because of the limited battery life of most laptops, however, ER1 tasks will mostly be defined by whatever sounds like fun. "It's not a product that solves any burning customer need," McNally said. "It's really a product for fun."

The key to making an ER1-equipped laptop perform useful tasks is the software, which includes a point-and-click interface for creating behavior routines that tell the robot what to do.

"That's how you train the robot to do things," McNally said. "The beer-fetching application took a string of 35 linked behaviors."

ER1 owners can save behavior routines and post them on Evolution's Web site for others to download. Beta users have already started posting files for basic routines.

The ER1 is available now from retailers such as Fry's and Tiger Direct. It costs $599 for a bare kit or $699 for a pre-assembled version.

The software requires a laptop with a Pentium III 800MHz processor or equivalent, 256MB of memory and two USB (universal serial bus) ports.