iRobot ConnectR


Up until now, the consumer robots from Massachusetts-based iRobot have all been relatively mundane service automatons. They could sweep floors, vacuum pools, and the latest could even clean gutters – but none really approached the 21st-century gee-whizz factor we’ve come to expect from robots. They were just sophisticated cleaning tools. That changes somewhat with the new iRobot ConnectR. Although there’s no brilliant Asimov-esque artificial intelligence behind ConnectR, it does behave smartly thanks to a healthy dose of real intelligence from someone thousands of miles away.

ConnectR is what iRobot calls a visitation robot. Equipped with a video camera, two-way audio system and wheels to get around with, ConnectR allows someone with Internet access – potentially on the other side of the globe – to take control of ConnectR and roam your house as if he or she were actually there.

“Creepy,” might be your initial thought, but the well-intentioned folks at iRobot imagine many creative and innocuous uses for the ConnectR. For instance, grandparents that live too far away to visit their grandchildren regularly could hop on their computers, fire up the ConnectR and have a conversation with them as they play with Legos. Parents who have to work late could log on to ConnectR’s Web interface in the office and check up on their home-alone children. Pet owners could do the same – although a roving orange plate isn’t likely to provide much comfort to their furry friends.

iRobot ConnectR
Image Courtesy of iRobot

IRobot has done its best to eliminate the other side of the creep-factor – potential intrusion – with a host of security and privacy controls. To start with, only those that hold PIN numbers that the ConnectR owner provides can access the robot. As a second measure to keep local hackers from intercepting wireless transmissions from the ConnectR, it uses a secure wireless connection iRobot calls VPN. No, not the familiar virtual private network but a virtual presence network, iRobot’s own vague lingo for a security measure that it doesn’t really define. As a sort of final reassurance, the ConnectR has a privacy mode that sets it to ignore requests for communication, meaning even those with access will be turned away. And if the thought of unwanted electronic visitors really bothers you… you can always put it in a closet.

The ConnectR’s hardware very much resembles that of its other room-prowling bots with communications equipment tacked on top. IRobot, does, however, promise high-quality audio on both ends, and the ConnectR camera is surprisingly capable. It can zoom in to levels up to 16.7x, pivot 220 degrees up and down, and turn 360 degrees on the floor using the robot’s wheels. Since the visual element and control are really what sets a ConnectR conversation apart from merely using a speakerphone, that flexibility will definitely be appreciated.

The ConnectR’s hardware very much resembles that of its other room-prowling bots with communications equipment tacked on top. IRobot, does, however, promise high-quality audio on both ends, and the ConnectR camera is surprisingly capable. It can zoom in to levels up to 16.7x, pivot 220 degrees up and down, and turn 360 degrees on the floor using the robot’s wheels. Since the visual element and control are really what sets a ConnectR conversation apart from merely using a speakerphone, that flexibility will definitely be appreciated.

For the geeky family that has everything, the ConnectR could be a wise addition to the home that’s really more of a gift to far-off relatives than for the people who live with it. But at $500 USD, Grandma and Grandpa had better seriously appreciate the new-found freedom. Those who just want to be the first on the block to have one in late 2007 might be able to take advantage of iRobot’s Pilot Program, which will allow a select few people to pick them up for $199 USD in exchange for feedback. For more information, please check out the iRobot website.

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