P I T T S B U R G H, Jan. 29, 2001 -- It won't fetch the paper, but it doesn't bite the mailman either.
Robot makers have created kits that will convert the same Palm handheld computer that plans someone's day into a simple machine that can follow him or her around the room like a puppy.
Why? Mostly for fun.
"Don't underestimate toys — it was games that got the personal computer revolution going," said Matthew Mason, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Mason assigned the job of building the robot to Grigoriy Reshko, then a 16-year-old summer intern at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics
Institute, and shares credit for it with Reshko and robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh. Acroname Inc. of Boulder, Colo., got a license to assemble the kits from mail-order parts, with the first hitting the market in November.
Two kits are available, selling for $259 and $299. The difference is in how much effort it takes to put together - the more expensive one requires only a screwdriver, while the other needs some some gluing and wiring.
Get Coffee! Play Tag!
Their availability comes as robots creep out of the realm of spooky science fiction into Joe Sixpack's world.
Machines pummel and body-slam each other in prime time on "Battlebots," second only to "South Park" in ratings on the Comedy Central cable channel. One top-selling Japanese toy is a robot dog, and Lego sells plastic robot kits.
The Palm handheld kit is "for those who we like to call the 'cube dwellers.' If you've ever been in an office that's full of cubicles, you know that everyone's got a toy," said Steve Richards, Acroname's founder.
The Palm itself, costing $169 to $400, is not included in the kit price.
Free software enables the three-wheeled robot to roam a room for hours, making turns whenever it nears a wall or furniture. It also can follow its master by being told to stay a certain distance from his or her foot.
Commands are delivered through the Palm's stylus, and sensors near each wheel measure the distance to the nearest obstacle. The device easily can be plucked from the robot frame for everyday use as a calendar, phone book or to send and receive e-mail.
"We'd like it to be able to go get a cup of coffee eventually," said Reshko.
For now, the robot doesn't have an arm to grab a drink, let alone a cup holder. Reshko said the kit is a platform that other inventors can use to build toys or other devices. Creators say two of the robots could be taught to play tag by someone savvy in an advanced programming language.
Assembly time for one robot is estimated at two hours, and Acroname figures someone as young as 10 could make it work.
The kit is one of the more creative applications for the Palm, said Satjiv Chahil, the chief marketing officer for Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif. The connector currently sold with the kits only works with Palm devices, though Acroname says it is working on a connector for the Visor series made by Handspring Inc.
The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon has been busy with several types of robots.
For instance, Skywalker, funded by NASA, could someday walk around the outside of space stations for inspections and repairs. Flo, a "nursebot," can remind residents of nursing homes to take their drugs, tell them what is on television and signal for help in case of a fall. The four-wheeled Nomad last year braved Antarctic ice at 18 inches per second to identify a rich field of space rocks near the U.S. base at McMurdo Station.
Visitors to the institute are likely to encounter as many machines roaming the halls as they do humans. Signs on the walls warn students not to leave their "toys" on the floor because they might be stepped on.
A researcher who built a fighting robot for "Battlebots," the televised cage match for machines, said the Palm device and others will take the science of robotics to the masses. People think that what they see in the movies such as "Star Wars" is realistic, said Fuzzy Maudlin, also the patent holder for the Lycos search on the Internet.
"They see C3PO walk up the stairs and figure a robot can do it," he said. "That's an incredibly hard thing to get a robot to do."