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CES 2011 Robot Roundup

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Tablets, TVs, e-readers, smartphones, and 3D glasses are great and all, but let’s face it: robots are the future. They’re metal, they’re shiny, they’re creepy, and they’re at CES. Before we left the show last week, we took a trip to the Robotics Zone of the South Hall to see what animatronic miracles were conjured up this year. Unfortunately, all the fuss over touch screens and telephones has lead to a serious shortage of crazy robotronic gizmos.

A message to the inventors of the world: we’d like to see a lot more useless, awesome mechanical creations next year. Until then, check out our complete 2011 Robot Roundup!

Paro, a therapeutic baby seal

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Nothing calms the nerves like cuddling with a robotic baby harp seal. At least, that’s what the makers of Paro the therapeutic robot have been banking on. Developed in Japan where animals aren’t allowed in many hospitals and nursing homes, this cuddly little guy is made to comfort and assist in therapy for the injured and elderly. Paro has tactile sensors all over it and responds to temperature, light, posture, petting, and touching by moving around and closing its eyes. Over time it actually develops its own character and recognizes familiar people through vision and voice recognition, reps told us.

It even makes sounds that are supposedly pretty similar to a baby seal, or so we’re told. We can’t verify the accuracy of this robot because none of us are crazy enough to go near an actual seal. Those things are dangerous. If you’re wondering about that pacifier, it serves a dual purpose. Not only does it make Paro look more adorable, it also charges the robot.

In the video above, Kelly interacts with the Paro and instantly begins to want one of her own. It was too loud on the show floor to try it, but the Paro can learn names, greetings, and praise with its audio sensors. It even remembers your patterns of action and will expect you to, say pet it after rubbing it in the future. Pavlov would be proud. You can buy a Paro of your own for about $4,8000 or lease one for $200 a month.

Pleo, an animatronic pet dinosaur

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I had a lot of dinosaur toys growing up (one even walked), but none like Pleo, by Innvo Labs. This toy robot is designed to look and act like a week-old baby Camarasaurus. Designed by the co-creator of Furby, Pleo seems much more lifelike than the Paro seal. It walks and communicates in its own language with camera vision, two microphones for hearing, four foot switches that detect surfaces, a tilt sensor that recognizes its body position, and infrared vision. Each Pleo also has fourteen force-feedback sensors (one per joint) and eight touch sensors on the head, chin, shoulders, feet, and back, so it knows when you pet or grab it. Pretty freaky, right? Even crazier, the dinosaur can detect beats, allowing it to dance to music and if another Pleo is nearby, the two dinosaurs will talk to each other, warning of obstacles and interacting in different ways. With different programmed objects, Pleo can learn new abilities like singing, counting, and tug-of-war.

It sounds cool on paper, but it’s cooler to actually interact with it. I’m not sure what the age demographic is for a toy like this, but it’s certainly fun to pet and watch on the show floor. Pleo costs $350 and comes with a bunch of accessories.

Robovie R3, a guiding robot

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I don’t have a strong working relationship with the Robovie R3, by Vstone and ATR. When I tried to shake its hand, the jerk pulled away, faking me out. And when a robot specifically designed to greet people doesn’t want to shake your hand, you know you have a problem. Robovie, a three-foot robot that can move around, spent most of its time autonomously moving around the CES show floor greeting people. It’s intended to help the elderly and physically challenged get around. It has 11 touch sensors in its body, 2 USB cameras for eyes, 2 microphones for ears, a speaker so it can talk, and a laser range finder to judge distance. To move around, it has 15 servomotors that give it 17 degrees of freedom. It also has an optional second design that has buggier eyes and a painted mouth.

The video above shows Robovie interacting with people on the show floor. It seems highly unafraid of anyone. You can also watch it reject my handshake. Robovie is still a work in progress, but if you’d like your own, a mere $41,000 will buy you your first robotic buddy.

Whee Me creepy massage robots

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Always be weary of a free massage, especially if the masseur is a robot. The Whee Me, by DreamBots is “the first massage robot,” according to its creators. It’s a pretty simple idea, the car-like robot rolls up and down your back, giving you a massage with its wheels as it drives back and forth. It has sensors that prevent it from falling off or losing its grip. Each of its wheels is covered in “patented fingerettes” that “gently stroke and caress providing a delightful sense of bodily pleasure.”

The Whee Me was a popular booth and always full of people, but the guys running the booth had a serious fascination with women using the Whee Me. If you check out the Whee Me site, you’ll see what I mean. While I am definitely a fan of the female form, these guys were kind of creepy.

In the video above, you’ll see our own Molly McHugh give the Whee Me a try. After a minute the rep puts a second massage robot on her back. Surprisingly, they’re able to interact with one another and avoid collision, but the guys started laughing as one of the robots got stuck and started to undress her. It got a little awkward so we had to stop the tape. So yeah, in conclusion, cool product, creepy reps. The Whee Me should debut in the fourth quarter of 2011 and cost about $69.

Robot Suit HAL exoskeleton

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We weren’t able to capture video of Robot Suit HAL, by Cyberdyne, but I wish we had. This is a therapeutic exoskeleton (think Exosquad without the guns). The robot is designed to help those who are physically disabled “feel the marvel of walking!”

It’s pretty cool. Though we didn’t see anyone fully suit up, one of the Cyberdyne representatives gave us a quick demonstration. By hooking two wires to a unit on his abdomen, he was able to move the legs of the exoskeleton by moving his own leg or by simply thinking about moving his leg. He explained that when we think about moving our leg, electric signals are sent from the brain to the muscles. When they arrive at the muscles, faint bio-electrical signals appear on the skin. HAL detects these signals and uses them to help the person walk or stand. It can also analyze how much power to give and assist with each step. The lag time is only a fraction of a second. Not bad.

We have no idea how insanely expensive it is to buy a HAL Robot Suit, but you can rent one for about $1,000 a month. Units for the arms, shoulders, and chest are also available.

RoboBuild spiderbot

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We cannot recall the name of the company that made this spiderbot, but it was one specializing in do-it-yourself custom robots and was buried deep in the Korean section of the North Hall. The man in the booth was building another robot as we passed by and didn’t care to be disturbed. These guys are full of sensors and run on battery or AC power. They remind me of the extensive collection of build-it-yourself Techno Zoids I had as a kid, except these robots actually work.

iRobot Roomba

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What collection of robots would be complete without an appearance by everybody’s favorite vacuuming robot, the Roomba. This smaller, iRobot model, is made to clean bathrooms. It’s small design lets it travel around and behind toilets and tubs. Like all Roombas, you turn it on, press the giant ‘CLEAN’ button, and let it do its thing.

In conclusion

We’d like to reiterate that while we definitely saw some cool bots, the Robotics Zone at CES is a ghetto of its former self. At the very least, we were hoping to see a walking touch tablet computer or a robot that would store and hand us our 3D glasses. Hopefully the world will realize that, while generally useless, it’s important to support robots. If we’re nice to them now, perhaps they’ll be kinder to us when they one day rise up against us.

Oh, and thanks to Molly and Kelly for the great pictures!

Jeffrey Van Camp
Former Digital Trends Contributor
As DT's Deputy Editor, Jeff helps oversee editorial operations at Digital Trends. Previously, he ran the site's…
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