June 4, 2012 at 9:25 AM ET
Meet Joggobot, the robot running companion for would-be-fit geeks who can’t get any fellow hackers away from their computer screens long enough to go for a run.
The robot is a quadrotor – that is a helicopter with four rotors – that flies a few paces ahead its running companion, keeping the jogger on pace and feeling a little less lonely while working up a sweat.
The flying robot packs a camera and tracking software that it uses to find markers on a specially-designed T-shirt worn by the runner. Once sighted, the robot can stay within about 10 feet of the shirt mark.
If the runner ditches into the bushes, or otherwise gets out of sight, the robot drops to the ground.
For now, the robot only works while running in a straight line and has a battery life of just 20 minutes, not exactly ready for the loop-like routes most runners take, nor for any longer, more fulfilling workouts.
But the technology is good enough for the team at the Exertion Games Lab at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, to do some preliminary analysis that will help design future robot running companions.
In general, the team found that people enjoy running with a robot as it distracts them from exhaustion and keeps them motivated.
There were, however, questions about control – do we want the robots to set the pace like a tough physical trainer, or respond to our needs and desires like a compliant partner?
Almost certainly it will have features that allow users to control the robot, such as speed up or slow down, based on hand gestures.
Future versions might also have more personality, such as eyes, to enhance user experience.
“We were surprised at how quickly users attributed social characteristics to Joggobot: they said things such as ‘it’s tired now,’ when the battery was empty,” the team reported.
Check it out in action in the video below.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.