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Personal Robotics: The Technology the US Will Miss

I have to admit a certain bias for personal robotics. Nearly two decades ago, when I was first married, our ring bearer was a robot, and one right off the production line. Even today, he remains with us in his little home in the corner of our cellar, where you can almost hear him mumble: “Honestly, I didn’t order that extra case of champagne; it was your old boss. Lemme out.” We remember him fondly for his ability to entertain children and trip the older guests.

My first cat was also robotic and was a gift from a close friend. It never once coughed up a hair ball on my car or printer (a pastime my wife’s cat took to heart), it didn’t wake us up at night, and, when my new wife’s real cat moved in, it would guard the bedroom door and keep the real cat from coming in and waking us up. We actually loaned it out to folks who had similar real-cat problems.

So it was a sad day a week or so ago when I was asked to do some background for CNBC on personal robotics and realized that while we are sending robots to Mars, much of the real action is going on in Europe and Japan, and a lot of it is suddenly becoming very mature. The work that is ongoing there breaks down into three categories: pets, household appliances and robotic servants.

Pets, Pets and More Pets

There is almost no activity in the United States in the area of robotic pets. This shouldn’t be surprising given that much of the toy market, which these robots are part of, went offshore some time ago. The Axlon Petster Delux Cat was the major U.S. entry into this market. It beat Sony’s own effort by more than a decade, and I became very attached to mine.

Before the product line went away, there were other animals, including a smaller cat, a dog, a hamster, a spider and even a penguin (well ahead of the Linux craze). These robots were created by Nolan Bushnell, who was clearly ahead of his time.

Currently, the market is dominated by the Sony Aibo, which is in its third generation and is admittedly very cute. When this product first came to market several years ago, Sony made 2,000 of them. At more than US$2,500 each, Sony figured such a production level would exceed demand. The company couldn’t have been more wrong. It sold the first thousand in Japan within minutes of making it available on the Web, and it took weeks to sell the second thousand — not because of a lack of demand, but because demand was so great Sony couldn’t keep the servers up long enough to take an order.

One improvement in the new product is that you no longer have to stick the memory stick that contains its personality in its butt. I imagine Sony Marketing demanded that change because the location of the slot reflected poorly on the memory stick line. The current version even has built-in WiFi.

Sony now has a robotic child coming out called the Dream Robot, which is expected to cost more than 10 times what the Aibo did. Unfortunately, it reminds me way too much of the Chucky films.

Aibo Knock-Offs and Other Pets

Several companies attempted to capitalize on the Aibo’s success. For example, Hasbro attempted to enter the robotic-pet market with the I-Cybie, which was an Aibo knockoff at a much lower price. But Hasbro has since excited the market, and Amazon dumped the remaining stock of $200 electronic dogs for $40, which goes to show that pedigree counts even in robotic pets.

One of the more exciting Aibo knockoffs also came from Japan. It is called a Vibe-inu, which shows there are other priorities than WiFi. It is basically a robotic dog with a marital aid as a nose. Fortunately, it is only available for the Japanese market right now, where the saying “taking the dog for a walk” has a new and unique meaning.

The latest craze is supposedly the Aquaroid, a robotic jellyfish that floats to music. Of course, you would expect that a $900 Robotic Godzilla would offer a little more than a good way to scare kids and small pets, two activities that actually are listed as features on the Web site.

Of course, Panasonic, not to be outdone, has released a $1,500 robotic cat called the Necoro, which looks a lot like the reincarnated homicidal cat in the movie “Pet Sematary.” I’m planning on getting two of them for one of my ex-neighbors.

Finally, Sanyo is working on a robotic watchdog, which is expected to cost nearly $17,000 when complete. This product, called Banryu, looks more like a badly colored dragon than a dog, but it is supposed to respond to household threats. I figure that a burglar, upon seeing this thing, would be immediately incapacitated due to uncontrollable laughter.

Household Appliances: Read, Vacuum Cleaners

The robots in use as household appliances are pretty much all vacuum cleaners. The United States has the Rumba by iRobot, which also makes the PackBot, a serious military robot. My neighbor has a Rumba, and she loves it. The only problem is that by the time she gets it set up, I likely could have vacuumed the room myself manually several times. But it is cute, and it does seem to work.

Europe has the Karcher Robo Cleaner, which costs more than twice what the Rumba does and makes it look like a toy. Europe also has the Electrolux Trilobite. Incidentally, Electrolux uses the slogan “Electrolux, It Really Sucks,” which didn’t translate well here.

The Trilobite is even more advanced than the Rumba and the Karcher Robo Cleaner, and it comes in designer colors. Of course, competitor Dyson is getting really serious and is expected to launch a $6,000 DC06 robot later this year. At that price, it should do windows too.

Japan is not planning to be left out, and Hitachi, Matsushita, NEC and Samsung are all reported to be working on similar products.

Servants: The Holy Grail of Robotics

Of course, the holy grail of the robot world is the robotic servant, and we do now have a contender. The Peoplebot from ActivMedia Robotics can play sounds, take commands, respond to requests, avoid obstacles, find and fetch objects, transmit video images and communicate with other similar robots. At $30,000 each, I’m betting there won’t be many houses with more than one of these.

The Honda Asimo looks like a lost, slightly insane astronaut and is much closer to what I think a robotic servant should look like. But I’m guessing only Donald Trump could afford one as an assistant right now. At $8,500, the Mitsubishi Wakamaru is more reasonable, but it also looks like a reject from an old Japanese sci-fi movie on a shoestring budget. Coming soon are the N-Robo from Matsushita and the Maron-1 from Fujitsu.

So, while we are busy putting robots on Mars, the Japanese and Europeans are hard at work putting them in our living rooms. Although it is great that we can put this kind of technology into space, the Mars Rover needs a domestic counterpart. At the very least, developing a counterpart to the Mars Rover would give the Rover someone to write home to.

Perhaps, like Velcro, it is once again time to look for commercial uses for our NASA technology and show the world that when it comes to pets, vacuums and servants, the phrase “built in the USA” could be a good thing.

We are outsourcing jobs to Europe and Asia anyway, so doesn’t it make sense that we build the robots that could do some of those jobs here?

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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