New household robot promises to make virtual visits easy

ConnectR robot creates virtual visits through audio, video and remote-control capabilities.

iRobot-the maker of household robot helpers such as the Roomba (a robot vacuum cleaner), the Verro (a pool-cleaning robot) and the Scooba (a robotic mop)-has set its sights on a far more social product, the ConnectR robot.

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Designed to connect late-night working parents with their children, far-off grandparents with their grandchildren and even animal lovers with their at-home pets, ConnectR creates virtual visits through audio, video and remote-control capabilities.

How? The ConnectR is placed in a "host" home. Remote "visitors" can use the robot, which is equipped with remote-control, two-way audio and a video camera, to move with, converse with and see those in the host home. For example, a parent who is working late can use the ConnectR to read a bedtime story to their children, and a grandparent can virtually play hide-and-seek using the robot stand-in. ConnectR is controlled through the remote user's wireless Internet connection.

Helen Greiner, cofounder of iRobot, says the ConnectR has been in the research and development phase for a long time. "In 2000 we tried to get one to market at a selling price of US$2,500, [but] affordability was the major barrier," she says. The company hopes the price obstacle has been overcome. ConnectR will cost $500 when it comes to market.

The ConnectR package includes a headset, allowing you to talk to those at home through the robot's speakers; a remote control so family members can "call" out and connect with you while you're away; and a self-charging home base. Privacy controls enable those on-site to turn off the audio, camera or both if they don't want to be disturbed.

iRobot is the latest example of a company with a long innovation history. Since 1990, Greiner's team has developed bomb-detonating robots for the military, robots that search surf zones for mines, in addition to their household robots. " Innovation is the lifeblood of iRobot," says Greiner. "We've been very successful at attracting the most innovative engineers in the world because they know that this is where robots are happening."

ConnectR is in beta testing and does not yet have a scheduled release date.

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