(By, Kevin Le)
iRobot, the MIT-originated engineering company famous for such inventions as the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner, has recently revealed their newest robot innovation: the ConnectR. Revealed on the same day as the Looj, a gutter-cleaning robot, the ConnectR differs from its siblings as the ConnectR does not serve a utilitarian purpose like other robots from iRobot such as the Scooba (a robot mop) or the Verro (a robot pool cleaner). Rather than serving a practical purpose, the ConnectR is meant to enrich people’s social lives by being a virtual presence that connects people, mainly relatives, who live far away from each other or have conflicting schedules.
Based on the Roomba design, this orange-red household bot is equipped with two high-resolution video cameras and a two-way audio system. It can be controlled remotely, so homeowners, parents, and pet-owners can check in on the house, family, and pets even when they are away. Grandparents can read to their grandchildren, and parents can play games with children remotely. The ConnectR is even capable of allowing users to play fetch with their dogs.
Since the ConnectR is based on the Roomba design, the ConnectR is mobile and does not tip over easily. This means that people do not have to stop what they are doing to have a conversation with someone remotely – the ConnectR will just move around accordingly. However, try to make the ConnectR traverse stairs, and the bot will be stopped in its tracks.
The ConnectR’s audio-visual capabilities is what separates this household bot from its iRobot siblings. The two high-resolution video cameras form a single feed and can zoom 16.7% and move up and down 220 degrees. The ConnectR can rotate on its wheels a full 360 degrees, thus the cameras can move around 360 degrees as well. Using a broadband wireless Internet connection and a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the two-way audio stream can carry communications remotely. The ConnectR can be controlled by a remote computer using a program pre-installed into Windows XP, and this interface includes video and audio feed that the robot captures as it moves. A user can control the ConnectR’s motion remotely with a joystick, or even with a mouse and keyboard. Like the Roomba, the ConnectR has a rechargeable battery, and when the ConnectR is low on battery, it automatically travels back to its Home Base — where the robot can recharge.
However, the ConnectR may not be the revolutionary social robot that iRobot is advertising it as. Although the ConnectR is one of the first robots to advance social robotics, the ConnectR, for the most part, features very little autonomous programming (pre-programmed instructions) and has to be controlled by the user. In other words, the ConnectR has very little intelligence of its own, and relies heavily on the people who use the ConnectR. Another issue is hacking. Although there are 10 different PIN codes for different family members per robot, the ConnectR can still be hacked. Considering how intimately the ConnectR is supposed to play a role in social and family lives, this would be a serious invasion of privacy and could also let criminals know the perfect time to break in. There is a way to turn off the audio and video feed to prevent an intrusion of privacy, but the user will not be able to use the ConnectR either. All in all, the ConnectR is the first big step towards social robotics, but it still has several kinks to work out.
“The simplicity of interaction is one of the most critical things.” – Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot