Originally created 11/30/02

Robot is fun but not very useful - yet



The ER1 personal robot won't make coffee, pick up the newspaper, vacuum the floors or even walk the dog. With prices starting at $599, it seems most adept at emptying wallets.

But beyond the not-so-cheap shots, the robot has a lot to offer. Like the personal computer kits of the 1970s, much can be learned - and perhaps someday much money can be made - on the road to usefulness.

And don't forget the prestige from being the first on the block with a robot smarter than Sony's canine-wannabe AIBO.

The ER1, sold by Evolution Robotics Inc., resembles neither a dog nor the robotic stars of science-fiction movies.

The 2-foot-tall, 20-pound machine is a three-wheeled platform that holds a laptop, its brains, and has a staff that carries a Web camera, its eye. Some might confuse it with an industrial table.

All parts are included except the most expensive - a laptop running the Windows operating system. Plan on spending at least another $1,000 if you don't already have one.

For the mechanically challenged, Evolution sells an assembled robot for $699 (still minus the computer). But anyone who opts to plunk an extra $100 for the assembled version is missing half the fun.

The ER1 is more of a hobby than a toy. It's not recommended for children under 14, unless they're supervised. Schools might be interested in using the robot to introduce the basics of robotics and programming.

It took about two hours to assemble my ER1, which came in dozens of pieces tightly packed in a box along with 100 screws. Two Universal Serial Bus cables plug into the laptop.

Once installed on the laptop, the software shows a live shot of what the robot's camera sees, various behavioral options and the robot's battery levels.

The instruction manual is especially well done, rare for a high-tech product. It clearly outlined all 32 steps to finish the job and made sense out of the various trusses, gussets, set screws and U clips.

After a few hours of charging the battery, we were ready for our first test - a routine in which the ER1 recognizes its box and moves toward it.

My ER1 immediately recognized the box but instead of driving toward it, it backed away as though it had been abused at the factory. (Turns out the camera pointed in the wrong direction. The test worked fine after I had adjusted it.)

Such tricks - including most of the other 50 or so suggested in the manual - are neat for showing off to neighbors or entertaining at parties. Besides following its box, the ER1 can play music, sing when it hears a loud noise, teach words to a parrot and even warn that it spots a beer can.

The recognition scheme is quite impressive. It could tell the difference between different denominations of currency. It even recognized me as long as I was wearing the shirt I had on when my image was originally captured. It didn't know me from Adam when I put on another shirt.

But the true power of the ER1 is in the ability to layer programs on top of one another, leading to more complex behaviors. Users familiar with the scripting language Python can create even more complicated tasks.

The possibilities are limited only by imagination and hardware. Evolution also plans to sell expansion kits, such as a gripper ($199) for grabbing that beer, and infrared sensors (price to be determined).

Evolution says the 12-volt rechargeable battery that powers the robot's motors can last up to three hours. My laptop battery died long before that.

I had the most fun driving the ER1 around using my home wireless connection. Because my laptop is wireless-capable, I could control the unit from my desktop computer and see everything the robot could see through that computer.

In fact, I could have controlled the thing from anywhere in the world over the Internet, provided I left a few holes open in my firewall.

On the Net:

Evolution Robotics: http://www.evolution.com