Category Archives: robots

My CES lowlight: the sex robot that wasn’t

I’ve seen a lot of duds at the Consumer Electronics Show over the years, but the biggest one actually came from the “other” sister show in Las Vegas, the Adult Entertainment Expo, which has typically run concurrently with CES.

Two years ago, I was one of many mainstream journalists lured to AEE - which, let’s face it, typically counted on CES attendees for much of its business - to see Roxxxy, supposedly the world’s first sex robot. Created by former Bell Labs inventor Douglas Hines, Roxxxy was supposed to have the ability to exhibit different moods and personalities. Selling at about $7,000, the robot was to take the adult industry - ailing from free porn on the internet - to the next level.

It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Roxxxy didn’t appear to be able to do much of anything. Here’s my report at the time, as well as video of the press conference:

It was clear that Roxxxy was nowhere near ready for prime time - and indeed, she still isn’t. The True Companion website on which she’s sold doesn’t appear to have changed much since it initially launched.

Meanwhile, AEE isn’t running at the same time as CES this year; it’s kicking off on Jan. 18, a few days after the electronics show wraps up. While the official reason for moving the show was to eliminate CES “complications” and lower expenses, it’s a sure sign of the industry’s decline. Exhibitors at past events told me AEE has been shrinking for years and that the Sands expo centre where it was usually held was starting to feel too cavernous for it.

Nevertheless, even with the porn industry’s shrinking and past robotic failures, rest assured that someone, somewhere is hard at work on the next generation of sex technology.

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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in AEE, CES, robots


My CES highlight: riding in a robot car

I’m knee deep in the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas so over the next few days I’ll be posting some retrospective - and futurespective (if that’s a word) - thoughts on the show’s past and future. With any luck, I’ll post some cool stuff from this year’s show.

Today, I thought I’d start with my most memorable CES experience, which was riding in a robot car at the 2008 show. The car, a GM SUV designed by Carnegie Mellon engineers, was tricked out with GPS, ladar (also known as laser radar and LIDAR) and a host of other sensors, all of which let it drive itself. The Boss, as the vehicle was known, won the 2007 DARPA urban challenge, an open race held by the Pentagon’s mad science division in an effort to spur development of robotic vehicles.

I wrote about the surreal experience in a CBC blog post, which you can read here. Alas, if only video were as ubiquitous back then (it’s amazing how quickly things have changed, particularly the field of journalism, which is increasingly relying on video), I’d post a first-hand view of the experience, since words really can’t capture the feeling. Wired actually did so, although the video can’t be embedded - you can see what it’s like to ride in the car by going here.

Scientific American also interviewed some of the people behind the Boss, which is here:

In a story I wrote at the time, GM representatives said fully robotic cars would be on the roads within 10 years, which is only six years away now. With Google experimenting with such vehicles and more automated features creeping into cars every year, we’re well on the way.

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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in CES, DARPA, robots


Camcorders: robots in disguise

A little while back, I wrote a story for Canadian Business about the changing shape of robots. No, it wasn’t about Transformers, it was about what we expect our mechanical friends to look like.

As little as 10 years ago, the popular conception of a robot was still humanoid; that when the robot revolution finally arrived, they would all look like C3P0 or Star Trek’s Commander Data. We’re now in the early stages of that revolution and the reality is considerably different, with robots not only coming in disc shapes but also packaged in familiar forms such as cars and, very soon, houses.

One of the experts I interviewed for the story - Jun–Ho Oh, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology - said he considers some of the newest cameras on the market to be robots. Such devices can auto-focus and track a subject’s movement autonomously, which qualifies them as such.

It’s hard to understand what he meant without actually seeing it, so I put together a brief video to demonstrate. While I was down at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I got to play around with the new Canon Vixia HF R20 camcorder. I used it to record a number of interviews while mounted on a tripod. The video below is a short clip from my interview with Dennis Durkin, chief operating and finance officer for Microsoft’s interactive entertainment business.

What’s really cool is that the camera, sitting by itself on its tripod, followed Durkin around without any help from me. It’s Jun-Ho’s robot in action. Check it out and watch his movements carefully:

I don’t know about you, but I find that really cool. It’s like having your own cameraman with you.

By the way, Durkin and I were discussing whether Microsoft could apply the success it has found in its Xbox business to other parts of the company. If you’re interested in that topic, check out the blog post I wrote for MSN.

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Posted by on June 22, 2011 in microsoft, robots


Eyes in the sky get creepier with robot birds

Nearly two years ago, I blogged about how DARPA - the Pentagon’s mad science division - was working on a robotic hummingbird, which would act as a super-small surveillance craft. Well, as Borat would say: Success!

Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment has perfected the tiny unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which uses flapping wings rather than rotor blades or fans to keep aloft. The Nano Hummingbird is equipped with cameras and even outfitted to look like the actual bird.

Check out the newly released promo video, which features some suitably dramatic music:

The Nano Hummingbird isn’t the only robot designed to replicate a bird. Check out the amazing Smartbird from Germany’s Festo. Just about anyone would be hard-pressed to tell one of these from the real thing at a distance.

If you weren’t paranoid about being watched before, now might be a good time to start.

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Posted by on June 9, 2011 in DARPA, robots, uav


2021: Robots, robots, robots

In an opinion piece in Scientific American five years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said the robotics market was currently at the same stage as personal computers were in the early 1980s. Given what we know about Moore’s Law and the law of accelerating returns, things are therefore about to get really interesting when it comes to robots.

Over the past decade, our notions of what a robot is have changed. We used to think of them as these humanoid automatons, like Star Trek’s Commander Data or Star Wars’ C3P0. But as robots have gone from science-fiction to reality, they’re showing up looking more like R2D2. That’s because humanoid robots are not necessarily practical - they were simply a form idealized by their egotistical makers, who thought their own shapes were utilitarian perfection.

Things really got moving in 2002 with iRobot’s introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. It was the first robot affordable to the every-day consumer that actually performed a useful task. The Roomba proved to be a hit and now other, bigger companies - including LG - are trying to get in on the burgeoning home robot market.

Out on the roads, meanwhile, Google has gotten involved with DARPA’s robot cars. I rode in one of these things a few years back and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The technology to have driver-less cars is almost here, the only question is when will we allow them?

But the change in perception of what a robot is goes deeper. We used to think a robot had to be able to move to be considered as such, but today roboticists say it merely has to be able to act autonomously. One robot guru I spoke to a few months ago, Professor Juh-Ho Oh at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says the latest cameras - which automatically shoot when they detect a smile - are effectively robots. Microsoft’s Kinect motion-gaming system, which has a camera that follows you around your living room as you have a video chat, is also somewhat robotic.

Our home appliances are becoming increasingly wired (or wireless, actually) and connected with each other. We will soon be able to control them remotely, while our homes will increasingly act autonomously - it will turn off lights and heat automatically when it detects that no one is home. During a recent conversation I had with Jim Watson, another roboticist at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, he wondered why there were so few robots overall on Star Trek. He corrected himself a second later, though, when he realized that “the whole ship was a robot.” Indeed - within the next 10 years, our entire home will be a robot that we’ll be living inside of.


Posted by on March 2, 2011 in DARPA, Google, robots


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