Monday, November 8, 2010

RoboCop Comes Home

Protecting Your Home From Afar With a Robot
Photo from NY Times

When Robert Oschler, a programmer, leaves his home, he knows it is secure. And if he ever has cause for concern, he can open his laptop and survey the house through the eyes of his watchdogs.

“I don’t have any pets. I just have pet robots, and they’re pretty well behaved,” Mr. Oschler said. “Fortunately I’ve never logged in and seen a human face.”

His robot, a modified version of the Rovio from WowWee, has a camera, microphone and speakers atop a three-wheeled platform. From anywhere with a Net connection, he can send his robot zipping around the house, returning a video signal along the way.

“As creepy as it sounds, you could even talk to the guy and say, ‘Get out of there. There’s nothing valuable. I’m calling the police,’ ” he said.

For all its power and ability, the Rovio is usually found in a store’s toy section for about $170. Other robots from toy makers, like Meccano, are there as well. Outfitting a house with a fleet of robot guards is no longer just for those with the wealth of Bond villains.

Home security is blossoming for toy makers who can match the technical power and flexibility of the computer industry with the mass-market prices that come from large production runs. Low prices are a trade-off, however, because many people find that the reliability of the lower-priced robots is adequate for home experimentation but far from ready for a task like guarding Fort Knox.

“You should buy two,” said Mr. Oschler, who lives in South Florida.

The off-the-shelf unit is ready to explore after a simple installation involving the computer, but Mr. Oschler added a few enhancements to the software, which he distributes at His version improves the audio and video quality and offers more sophisticated programming options that create routines and paths for the robots to follow.

Mr. Oschler has even wired his robot to a headset that picks up the subtle electrical activity produced by his brain.

“When I tilt my head, the robot goes left. When you do that, it’s a Matrix-like moment,” he said proudly.

Other robot owners have modified their guard-bots, too. Peter Redmer, of Illinois, a online community manager at, said his site gathered the collective wisdom of the toy robots. One hobbyist in China, Qiaosong Wang, posted pictures of his Rovio after he added a small fire extinguisher and software that can detect the shape of fire.

“One of the goals is to create something that the consumer can enjoy without pricing it at $5,000 or $10,000 with military-grade technology,” Mr. Redmer said.

Others have experimented with adding software for aiming the camera or enhancements like better lights for patrolling at night.

Mr. Redmer said he was most interested lately in the Parrot AR.Drone, a flying robot priced at $300. “It flies. How much cooler does it get?” he asked.

Not all of the innovation is attached to something that moves. Several companies are matching sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms with video cameras. These systems monitor the video feed and sound alarms when objects of a certain shape appear.

I tried some software called Vitamin D that lets me watch my office. It raises flags — by beeping — whenever anyone walks in. It requires a computer and detects video signals from attached cameras. (A single-camera version is free, and the cost can rise to $199, at

Archerfish makes surveillance cameras with sophisticated filters for detecting and distinguishing people, vehicles and other random movement. The models, at, include either one or four cameras for $400 to $1,400.

I also spent some time with a Spykee, a robot made by the French company Meccano that sells toys in the United States under the brand name Erector. Several models of Spykee robots are at, for $110 to $300.

The company, perhaps best known for its Erector sets, designed the Spykee as a kit that required some basic assembly. The essential gears and electronics come in a prebuilt base, and attaching the arms takes an hour or so.

“It’s a toy, but many people use it as surveillance robot,” said Jennifer Briand, the product manager for Spykee. By aiming at children, Ms. Briand said, “We wanted a product that they could drive on their own like a spy, play jokes on their brothers and sisters, and protect their bedroom because at that age they don’t like their sister coming in.”

Still, she said the use as a surveillance robot was a bit of a surprise..."

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