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Monday, June 3, 2002

This laptop will sing lullabies
Ben Berkowitz

IMAGINE having your laptop fetch a beer from the refrigerator and then roll over to the baby's room to sing a lullaby while e-mailing snapshots to grandma a thousand miles away.

Evolution Robotics, a start-up backed by Pasadena, California-based technology incubator Idealab, unveiled this week what it calls a "personal robot system." - essentially a robotic framework centred on a laptop computer.

The company's ER1, which is able to perform the kinds of automated functions once considered science-fiction fantasy, retails for $499 in a do-it-yourself assembly kit or for $599 in a pre-built format.

Users can plug any laptop into the robot, though the current configuration does not power the computer from the robot's battery. Planned future functions will allow for automatic recharging from standard electrical outlets, the company said.


"It's sort of a young toddler of a robot," Mike Dooley, a product manager for Evolution Robotics, told Reuters.

Evolution chose a unique place to unveil the device -- the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game industry's annual trade show concluding on Friday in Los Angeles.

The consumer model of the robot uses a basic visual training system. It has a Web camera, and using the included software, the owner can show the robot an item (examples used included a CD and a book) and then cue the robot to take action once it sees that item, in what the company described as an "if-then" arrangement.

Tucked away in a back corner of the main Convention Centre hall, Evolution executives ran a demonstration in a mock living room where the ER1 was shown a Coke can, causing it to drive to a small refrigerator, identify the right can from a group of three lined up in front of the fridge, pick it up and deliver it to a recliner on the other side of the mock room.

The system was not without its bugs. The retriever arm dropped the soda can on the floor halfway to its destination. Dooley said the arm is still a prototype and will not be available until later this year.

He also conceded that, for the time being, the ER1 remains hobbyist's device, made available to the public more as a proof-of-concept than as a candidate for hot toy of the year.

"This is really an early-adopter market," he said.