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Last Updated: Friday, 10 August 2007, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Advance of the homebot
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Click presenter

Robots are cool but we do not really use them, do we? So are they just for fun or will they ever be anything more than toys?

Firefighting robot
Navigation is a challenge for the firefighting robot

Countries like Japan and South Korea are synonymous with robots. There, domestic machines have started to make inroads.

In the West, the homebot industry is years behind. But there are people with a mind to change that.

"I think you'll see more robots in the service industry, more things in handicapped and elderly care," said Bob Allen of OLogic.

OLogic has designed a service robot to help people with walking difficulties carry out every day tasks. Called Follow-me, the robot follows a beacon which could be sewn into a piece of clothing, or worn on a belt loop.

"Our robot would follow them around carrying their laundry or dishes and be a kind of companion."

Basic challenges

Mr Allen has demonstrated his prototypes at various shows, hoping to get big business to back his ideas. He has already persuaded one genius to join him - 15-year-old home-schooled coding ace Tony Pratkanis.

Together, they work on projects to overcome some basic challenges to home-robotics. For example, their firefighting robot scans each room in a mini house until the inferno is detected, at which point it unleashes its extinguisher.

But navigating outside of a controlled environment, in the real world, is much more difficult.

Behind the scenes of Click's trip to Silicon Valley.

"The ever-changing environment is a huge problem," explained Mr Pratkanis. "Tomorrow morning the trashcan could be moved in the path of the robot.

"There are an infinite number of things that could get in the way of sensors: there are things that do not look like they should, there are windows that might not appear on all sensors. The world is an evil place."

Mr Allen added: "Then you have humans moving around. A robot has got to be able to interact with those, not bump into them and fall over. We don't want any lawsuits, that's for sure."

Stupid Fun Club

While Mr Allen may one day prove that robots like his deserve a place at the right hand of humans, the guys at the Stupid Fun Club in Berkley are studying how man is likely to react to that premise.

Here, the furniture definitely has a life of its own. Take Shiny the friendly lamp, designed to swing round, greet you, and shine her light wherever you need it. The secret - some serious motion sensors under the desk. The problem - stopping it getting distracted by anyone and anything else in the room.

Eventually they develop relationships with you depending upon how you have treated them.

The club is the brainchild of Will Wright, creator of the games SimCity and The Sims. For a long time he has been fascinated with the way humans and technology could and should interact, he explained.

An example is his microwave and fridge, or Hotsy and Mr Cool, as he calls them.

"We basically gave them a personality and intelligence," said Mr Wright. "They have voice recognition and you have to talk to and interact with them for them to operate. The fridge won't open unless you have a conversation with it.

"Eventually they develop relationships with you depending upon how you have treated them. They may decide they like or dislike you. And when you leave they can actually talk to each other and gossip.

"It is trust versus convenience. There are so many low level functions that we're happy for these things to take-over for us. If you're driving with a [sat] nav system in your car and it tells you to make a U-turn on the freeway you're glad that there's a human in the loop and the car isn't in control of itself."



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