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E3 show: Introducing the robot patrol

More C3PO madness from the LA game tech show

It's not entertainment of the video game variety, but the ER1 Personal Robot System, unveiled at the E3 (Electronics Entertainment Expo) show in Los Angeles this week, is definitely a standout.

Touted as the first internet-enabled, completely autonomous consumer robot, it is the first product from Evolution Robotics of Pasadena, California.

With the company's build-it-yourself kit, priced at around £340 plus VAT, you essentially construct a mobile robot around your own notebook PC. Included is software that permits novice robotics hobbyists to program complex behaviors with relative ease.

Key to the robot's success is a powerful vision system that lets the robot map its environment and track its use of visual cues, says Bill Gross, Evolution Robotics chairman. The vision system is actually a common USB-connected PC camera, but it enables the ER1 to manoeuvre in a so-called "unstructured environment".

"In the past, if you wanted a robot in your house, you needed one of two things. Either you had to lay tracks in all the hallways and rooms you wanted the robot to go, or you needed to create a pathway of magnets under the floor," Gross says. "Nobody wants either of those things, so they never took off."

With the freedom of movement the ER1 enjoys, it can allegedly navigate a house with ease and find its way to a destination even if you rearrange the furniture.

You can also program the robot to follow or track objects or people, which may lead to more than a few annoyed cats in robot-enabled households over the next few years.

The ER1 can also be configured to respond when it hears specific sounds or voices, if it sees faces, or if it senses motion — a potentially useful security function for the household.

The robot responds to communication over the internet, using wireless 802.11b networking, and even has its own email address. There, it can check for commands or even send images or recorded sounds to its master.

The robot is more sophisticated than Sony's Aibo robotic pets, approaching the technological prowess of other humanoid devices showcased recently at the Robodex show in Japan.

One impressive demo showed the robot using what may be its most desirable accessory: a $199 (£136 plus VAT) mechanical arm connected below its built-in camera. With the arm and camera working in concert the robot can identify objects and retrieve them upon voice command. In the demo, the robot rolled over to a refrigerator, removed a soda can and took it to a company representative.

The company is taking orders for the ER1K robot kit now and will begin shipping a fully assembled $599 (around £410 plus VAT) ER1 robot, sans notebook, in a few months.

Later this year Evolution Robotics expects to release a charging base where ER1 can reside when its battery gets low. For now, the robot runs for about five hours for each charge, but the limiting factor is likely the notebook battery life.

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