CES - Robots pick up socks, patrol the house, take photos

With a booth in the robotics pavilion, Yujin Robot of South Korea was also showing a floor cleaner and a patrol robot. Chief technology officer, Seony Park, said that the firm's $700 iClebo floor vacuum -- disc-shaped like the others -- was superior to the Roomba because it was quieter, had a more powerful vacuum, and it did not bump into furniture thanks to its use of dual infrared and contact sensors.

Yujin's patrol robot, called iRobi, is about 2 feet high, with a face designed to appear friendly to children. When the robot is first acquired, the user leads it around the house via a remote control to teach it the layout of the premises. Thereafter it could be told to go to a room and take a picture and send it to the owner at a remote location, Park said. He estimated the US price of the robot would be about $US3000 when it was marketed late this year.

Meccano, the French firm that makes Erector sets, was in the pavilion showing Spyke, a robot Erector project that Meccano managing director, Michael Ingberg, said could be assembled in a couple of hours, in a variety of configurations. It, too, can be controlled through the Internet via a Wi-Fi link, taking pictures and interacting with a microphone and loudspeaker. The prototype shown at CES had hands that were purely cosmetic, but Ingberg said that Meccano plans to eventually offer a toy missile launcher as an accessory. The basic unit is expected to cost $US269 and be available by Christmas.

Other booths at the pavilion were staffed by various Japanese government agencies, such as Robot Technology Osaka, displaying various Japanese robot products. Some were hobbyist kits, but there was also Paro, a "therapeutic robot" that looks like a baby harp seal, except that it has fur, making it cuddly, and it is programmed to be friendly. The cost is about $US3500 but is so far sold only in Japan, said coordinator for the Japanese External Trade Organisation office in Chicago, Kevin Kalb, who was also at the pavilion.

Paro won an award last year from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and METI planned to turn its robot awards program into an annual event, Kalb said. METI had also decided to make robots a major focus, to counter the effects of a declining labor population in Japan, caused by a declining birth rate and aging population.

Indeed, Kalb provided literature from METI laying out an official plan to assimilate robots into Japanese society, through 2025. In the next few years, the plan includes support for the creation of a robot service market, humanoid robot development efforts, common infrastructure development projects and basic development for strategic advanced robots. The spreading stage should begin about 2010, and the full-fledged spreading stage in 2015. By that time the Japanese robot market should amount to 3.1 trillion yen ($US26 billion), and general-purpose self-directed robots should be in circulation.

Watching from his corner of the pavilion, co-founder of OLogic, Bob Allen, acknowledged that the Japanese had about a decade head start concerning humanoid robots, but, as the Roomba demonstrates, a humanoid configuration is not always the answer.

His firm makes one-off custom prototypes for developers and start-ups. "Most successes have been with toys, and with some small projects for Disney," he saidd. "The market is like the PC market 30 years ago. If we did a specific robot product now and missed our mark in terms of timing or market, we could go down the tubes. We have seen investor groups starting to look at the industry, whereas four years ago, when we started, they were not. They also want to invest in us, but we have decided that we don't need that."

Out on the floor, the crowds -- and a procession of camera crews -- preferred to gather at the nearby booth of WowWee Ltd. of Hong Kong, which sells toys with robotic features. The main attraction appeared to be a singing bust of Elvis Presley, for $US249.

- Lamont Wood writes about technology from San Antonio.

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