By Grant Gross
It'll allow you to check on your dog or keep tabs on the cable guy when you're at work, even keep an eye on Grandma. It climbs stairs, peers over desktops, and runs on Linux. What the iRobot-LE doesn't do is housework, at least not yet.
A first glance, the iRobot-LE, which looks a bit like a swan on wheels, may seem to be a mobile Web cam. But Helen Greiner, president and co-founder of the iRobot Corp., says the $4,995 machine can do anything a regular computer can do, [optional features include a keyboard and monitor]. Plus it has a video teleconferencing system with wheels that can go anywhere a person can comfortably walk indoors.
Basically, the Web-controlled iRobot-LE allows you to be two places at the same time. "It's basically a physical avatar," Greiner says. "We like to think of it as extending the physical world out to the virtual world. It's really virtual teleportation."
The company distances itself from the potentially nefarious uses of the iRobot-LE. Under the section "What it is not" on the company's Web site: "The advent of mass access to immense bandwidth has made it
possible to put personal web video cameras everywhere. While this is, in itself, neither good or bad, it could lead to situations where we are being monitored 24 hours a day, and privacy is a thing of the past. For example, if you wanted to be able to see what was going on at your house, you would have to install and wire cameras in every room. That's a lot of cameras, and for your family, it means never knowing if you are being watched or not. The iRobot-LE is different since it's a 'physical presence' that can be driven anywhere in your home. If it is in the room looking at you, then it can see you. If it's not there, then it can't. If you want privacy, close your door. That's it."
Greiner's company, an offshoot of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, introduced the iRobot-LE Sept. 5. When it was introduced, iRobot's creators saw its primary use as the "eyes and ears" of a homeowner: a home sentry, check on babysitters, that sort of thing. But potential customers have already mentioned dozens of other ideas to iRobot Corp. One manufacturing company wants to use it to help off-site managers get up close and personal when their assembly lines have problems. At Greiner's office, employees are using the iRobot-LE for on-the-fly video teleconferencing, complete with attention-getting gestures, instead of scheduling time in the room with the much more expensive teleconferencing system.
Greiner predicts people will come up with more uses, and the company or its partners will create more optional accessories such as robotic arms and scoops. Both the iRobot-LE 's hardware and its software is designed to be expandable, she says. "In the future, you can imagine an iRobot mowing a golf course or mopping an airport floor," she adds. "And it could be someone who is disabled or who doesn't want to commute any more."
Although Greiner doesn't describe iRobot Corp. as an Open Source company, the founders were attracted to the Linux Operating System because the programmers can tweak the software to best work with the iRobot-LE. "Because it's Open Source, we can see the code and change it," Greiner says. "We wanted to be on an operating system that's encouraging a development community, and Linux has a large and enthusiastic development community."
The price was also right. iRobot's creators wanted to keep its price from scaring away potential customers. "Every little bit adds up," Greiner says. "If you have to pay for someone's closed operating system, you have to add that on."