The ER1 delighted fans in a recent demonstration at CompUSA.
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msnbc.com

For $600, a bit of patience and about four hours work, you get a robot. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when your friends ask what it can really do, you might find yourself making a lot of excuses. I think the ER1 is a remarkable achievement in that it’s sitting on store shelves in CompUSA right now, next to LCD monitors and video cameras, a genuine, open-ended consumer robot kit for a reasonable price. But as for tricks it can reliably perform for friends, well, it’s about neck-and-neck with my dog Beau.

DEPENDING ON YOUR point of view, a robot that does at least as many tricks as a dog, with about the success rate of a dog — my dog anyway, which is maybe 50 percent — that’s either a grand accomplishment or just plain silly.

The people at Evolution Robotics, who make ER1, are going to be unhappy with my comparison of ER1 to a dog, since they are trying hard distinguish their product from Sony’s Aibo, which was much more cute than computer. Perhaps this will assuage them: ER1 is a much better dog than AIBO. More important, it’s a much more interesting, if far less attractive, robot.

When I built the ER1 and brought it to the newsroom, everyone gathered ‘round, of course. But it didn’t take long before the skeptical journalists peppered me me with “well, what does it do?”

The answer? Well, it can follow me around, if I’m patient. It could get me a beer, if I had a special claw attachment. It could be operated by remote control, over the Internet, if I had a wireless network at my house.

Welcome to the world of robotics, dominated by the word “If.”

But that doesn’t make it wrong, or bad, or silly. ER1 is part erector-set, part Lego Mindstorm, maybe a little bit of Sony’s Aibo, but mostly, it is your laptop computer with wheels and a digital camera added.

SEEING IS BELIEVING

The camera, which makes the whole thing look a bit like a Cyclops, pokes out above your laptop, constantly scanning the world in front of it. It’s actually a powerful feature, easily the ER1’s most significant contribution to consumer robotics.

This machine can literally see, and that means training it to do things like cross the room, or even navigate around corners, is much easier than with other machines. No plugging in time, distance, or coordinates. You give it directions just the way you help a lost traveler: Using a very simple graphic interface, you tell ER1 to head straight for the coffee table, make a right when it gets a few inches away, then make another right when it sees the trash can, and stop when it’s 2 feet from the fridge. As with a lost traveler, however, often something is lost in the translation.

InsertArt(1650561)But the sight technology is impressive. Chris Manson, who’s touring CompUSAs around the country offering demos of ER1, proved to me that the robot can tell a $1 bill from a $20 bill, for example. And it can measure distance too, offering simulated depth perception, computing if that bill is a foot away or 5 feet.

Having a machine around that can see is a lot of fun. The simplest trick I managed was to get my ER1 to recognize a book cover and follow me around — well, follow the book, really. Not unlike holding a biscuit in front of my dog. Getting the ER1 to perform a trick like that within about 5 hours of opening the box, that’s a pretty good payoff, I think. I must admit, the first time the thing started moving toward me, it seemed a bit as if it had come to life, and I did get chills.

If I didn’t have a set of technical glitches, some real-life product limitations, and limited time, I could have accomplished much more. But before we get to the blue-sky portion of this story, let’s talk about what really happened when I opened the box, so you can decide for yourself if it’s worth $600.

CONSTRUCTION, ALMOST EASY

First things first: You must supply your own laptop (Windows OS) for this robot, making it quite a bit more expensive than $600. But the good news is, the computer can easily be taken in and out of the unit. So it’s realistic to use your existing laptop while you play with ER1, then take it out and take it to work (don’t tell the boss).

Evolution Robotics says it should take about an hour to put this together. It took me three.
The ER1 kit is smaller than you might think, and when you open the box, it’s not intimidating. There’s only about 30 parts to put together, and most of the hard work has been done for you — the wheel sub-assemblies are already in one piece, ready to attach to the chassis you’ll build.

The box brags that construction takes only an hour. I’d say that’s a tad optimistic; it took me three. In all fairness, I’m hardly God’s gift to mechanical labor, but I’m not a total klutz, either. To give you an idea of my skill level: I recently managed to replace the electric power window motor in my Mustang by myself, but it took about five weekends of fooling with it.

In the end, I’d say putting ER1 together was just a notch harder than assembling a bed from IKEA. That means you might not want to do it on Christmas Eve under deadline, but the assembly shouldn’t dissuade you if you’re thinking about it.

Setting up the software was a snap, too, even though I was using Windows ME. Two new devices have to be installed — the robot controller and a new digital camera. With only two false starts, Windows recognized both on its own, thanks to easy USB connections, and suddenly the camera was glowing an ominous purple, ready to watch me. It’s odd having eye-to-eye contact with a robot.

I did, however, have some hardware problems. ER1 requires two USB ports, and like many laptops, mine only has one. Not to worry, the ER1 box says, just use a USB hub, which lets you plug in multiple USB devices. The first one I bought wasn’t good enough, because the digital camera sucks a lot of power, and the $15 USB hub I had didn’t supply enough juice. So I bought a $30 hub, one with a power supply, and bingo, $45 later, I was up and running.

But alas, this solution was far from ideal, because my robot was now tethered to an electrical outlet, and not about to get me a beer. The Evolution Robotics people told me only specific hubs work with their robot, and a list will soon appear on their Web site. Too bad that’s not right on the box. If I were buying, I wouldn’t even try to use a laptop with only 1 USB port.

Still, even tethered, the unit did roll back and forth to me, spin in place, and speak the name of objects I flashed in front of the camera after just a moment’s training.

I also had battery problems with my unit. The first couple of times I used it, it only held a charge for about five minutes before going kaput. But I saw Manson run his ER1 up and down the aisles of around CompUSA for over an hour, enchanting every passerby, so I know it’s possible.

One more word of warning: The robot’s small wheels were not very comfortable on my office carpet. It wheeled just fine on my carpet at home and on my hardwood floors.

WHAT MORE IT CAN DO

Spinning in circles, announcing book names, looking cute, it’s all very fun, but hardly the stuff of a long-term relationship. That made ER1 a pretty expensive first date, the kind of thing I was worried about when I tried online dating a year ago. The real question with this kit, and any science kit, is: Will this be a long-term relationship? My answer to that is a tentative yes, with a few qualified ifs.

ER1 has a lot going for it. In addition to the smart image recognition technology, the included software really is easy to use and flexible, providing an excellent combination of pre-set routines and a creative palette to work with. The robot’s most interesting feature is its advertised “telepresence” capabilities. It can be operated remotely over the Internet, and beam back everything it sees. Imagine an X-10 camera on wheels, for example. That has some nice home security implications; I for one would like to check in on the dog every now and then. I couldn’t test this feature because I can’t get DSL or a cable modem at my house and I don’t have a wireless network.

Since my father is a computer teacher, I was sensitive to the potential educational uses for the robot, and I feel they are intriguing. “Training” an ER1 requires the owner to use very simple “if/then” logic, to be very literal with the poor machine: “If you see this book, then move forward toward the book.” “If you hear the word “music”, play a CD.”

While that can be frustrating for us humans, learning to think in such a step-by-step process is invaluable to future computer scientists. Since the robot moves and speaks and listens, programming success and failure are very tangible. That makes it an exciting teaching tool.

NEW FEATURES COST EXTRA

But some of the other most interesting things ER1 can do will, no surprise, cost extra money. Its big claim to fame, the fact that it can make its way to the fridge, find the flavor of beer you want, and bring it to you, is of no use unless you buy an additional claw. And you can’t, yet — it won’t hit stores until later this year. Other expansion kits are coming, too: One will let you build a trailer for the ER1 so it can cart things around the house.

At Evolution Robotics, ER1s are outfitted with backpacks so they can carry mail around the office, CEO Bernard Louvat said. But fun aside, Louvat thinks robotics is serious business. So does visionary Bill Gross, CEO of IdeaLabs, the now famous Pasadena technology incubator that spawned dozens of startups in the 1990s — including success stories like Citysearch and famous flameouts like eToys and FreePC. Idealabs spawned Evolution Robotics last year.

“We spent time investigating where the industry is going,” Louvat said. “We see it beginning slow. We have to find applications that make robots really compelling. But we believe the market will be as big as the PC market, that some day there will be robots in every home.”

That might be more than the wishful thinking behind firms like FreePC. A U.N.-study released this week said more than 700,000 consumer robots — mostly appliances, like automatic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers — will be sold during the 2002-2005 period.

But for now, Louvat was honest about the capabilities of his company’s first product.

“This is not a robot you open the box and it will do things for you,” he said. “People derive the fun from building the applications themselves.”

And that’s the key to building a long-term relationship with an ER1. Think of it like getting a puppy. If you want it because it’s cute and fun and cuddly, just borrow one from a friend for an afternoon. Or get an AIBO. But if you’re willing to spend an hour a day playing with it, training it, and you’re willing to clean up after it occasionally (because it will, of course, spill a few of those beers, and probably on your laptop), than it will be $600 well spent.

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