SAN FRANCISCO -- Holding out a green ball, Keller Rinaudo walks across the room and, without hesitation, a little robot grins and follows him.
Rinaudo stops on a dime and changes directions. The robot does too. Then, Rinaudo tosses the ball and the robot happily chases after it.
This is Romo, the first product from San Francisco-based Romotive. A $150 robot that uses an iPhone as its brains, Romo has been around for nearly two years. Romo runs off the power of an iPhone's microprocessor. Users dock one device onto a connector on the robot's base, and from a second iOS device, they can control Romo via its app over a Wi-Fi network. It's a lot of fun for surprising a cat, having a video chat with a friend, or learning to program.
But Romo's never been able to intelligently and autonomously chase things before.
Few robots, if any have, and almost certainly never a little consumer device like this. But next week, Romotive is launching Chase, a new feature that gives Romo the ability to learn to recognize a colored object, and then follow that object around wherever it goes.
Rinaudo, Romotive's co-founder and CEO, said that the company, which got its start in Las Vegas thanks to funding from, among others, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, has been hard at work on new vision technologies designed to allow Romo to take action based on the things it can see.
"See," of course, is a misleading word. But the robot has long utilized the iPhone's camera as an eye of sorts, and now Rinaudo and his team have figured out how to give Romo the intelligence to act on its own.
Chase is the first example of this. Users can train Romo to recognize a specific color, and once it does, the little robot will endlessly follow an object with that color around. Why? Because it's fun -- and because it's a first step to other utilizations of vision technology.
All of this is why the company, which has received $6.5 million in funding, has been adopted by some of the best-known names in retail. Rinaudo said Brookstone has ordered thousands of Romos, and Apple.com will soon begin selling the robots -- all just in time for the holidays.
Rinaudo said that Romotive is eager to build robotics interfaces that make it simple for people -- from children eager to learn to program to adults who just love playing with tech toys -- to interact with technology. "We're focused on taking [robotics] technology out of the labs," Rinaudo said, "and making it accessible."
For now, Romo is a toy, albeit one the company hopes will inspire large numbers of kids to learn to program. The basic Romo app, for example, is designed to help teach kids basic programming skills, but to do so disguised as a game. It's also meant to be highly intuitive, requiring no user manual. Instead, users learn to make Romo go by playing with it.
Is being able to chase a green ball going to change the world? Not by itself. But Rinaudo has seen enough kids become enthralled by the feature -- leading Romo around and around and around -- to know that they've created something special.
In time, Romo may be able to recognize faces, and then Rinaudo imagines kids training the robot to perk up when it sees specific people. Someday, it could even have a more in-depth relationship with its human than it does with other people.
That's a ways off. For now, kids and adults alike who enjoy robots will have to be satisfied with the novelty of playing with a little robot that is smart enough to notice the green ball in their hand, or that's rolling across the floor, and happily follow it wherever it goes. It might sound simple. But spend a couple minutes leading Romo around with nothing but a green ball in your hand, and you will find yourself amazed at the state of consumer robotics today.