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Transforming a laptop into a robot

Evolution Robotics says it can transform an average laptop PC into an intelligent robot with a kit that includes a rolling platform and a Webcam for capturing visual data.

LOS ANGELES--Sure, Aibo the robot dog is cute, but can he fetch you a beer?

Grabbing a brewski from the fridge is just one of the real-world tasks promised by Evolution Robotics, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company that promises a popular but practical approach to robotics.

The company is at the Electronics Entertainment Expo this week demonstrating a series of "personal robot systems" that can transform an average laptop PC into an intelligent robot. The basic kit includes a rolling platform to mount the laptop on, a Webcam for capturing visual data and software to run on the laptop.

Company Chairman Bill Gross said the real breakthrough with the company's software is real-time processing of visual data. The Evolution software can interpret images at a rate of five frames per second, matching data captured by the camera with a library of visual references. Instead of executing pre-determined routines, as most robots do, the Evolution system can respond to its environment almost instantly.

"Vision is hard," Gross said. "Nobody has succeeded in making it work in real time."

Program the software to recognize a beer bottle and a refrigerator, for example, and next time you're running on empty, you just need to wave a bottle in front of the laptop's camera and request a refill.

While the beer routine made a good demonstration, Gross said he expects the system to have many useful real-world applications. A seeing robot could be a useful companion for a blind person, for example, or a sophisticated security camera. The Evolution software is based on an open programming interface, and Gross expects numerous amateur developers to create and share applications for the system.

"We want people to build useful applications around this," he said. "We think they'll be huge libraries objects this will visually recognize."

The first Evolution system, the ER-1, is available now for $599 as an assembled system or $499 as a kit, from retailers and directly through Evolution's Web site.