SAN FRANCISCO--iRobot hopes someday soon a robot waiter will deliver your food--and it might well use an Android tablet to see, hear, speak, and think.
At the Google I/O show here today, iRobot CEO Colin Angle showed off a prototype called AVA that the company plans to begin selling this year to developers to try to ignite the market.
Today there are two general robot types that are sustainable businesses: high-end, expensive ones for defusing bombs in Afghanistan or monitoring radiation in Japan, and low-end ones for vacuuming. Angle wants an intermediate category and believes tablets will enable that market to develop.
"The third option is the interesting one, with technology advances enabling robots to do things more like Rosie from the Jetsons," Angle told thousands of developers assembled at Google's show. "That's where you all come in. The robot industry can't be trusted to solve this problem. We need the mobile computing industry to come in and save our bacon through things like this."
AVA grafts a tablet onto a mobile robot body that can navigate floors. An Android-powered Motorola Xoom tablet was not just the brains of the operation, but the senses and face as well.
"We in the robot industry realized this is a fantastic head for a robot," with a camera and microphone for visual input and a screen and speakers to let people interact with the robot. "What was missing was the body," Angle said.
Thus, AVA, with a tablet on top of a stalk and a wider base with wheels to move around. The robot can create its own map of an area as it navigates.
The robot can move up to 2 meters per second, avoiding obstacles--not just fixed ones, but moving ones such as a person jumping in the way, Angle told CNET in an interview.
iRobot showed an AVA robot with an iPad at CES in January, but Android is a better match because of abilities such as voice and video chat, Angle said.
"We are tablet-agnostic. We'll support both," he said. "Right now, Android has what we need."
The head can be lowered so the center of gravity isn't as high, improving cornering stability, he said.
The initial model will be aimed at developers. Angle believes early models could be useful within a business for telepresence--pestering people who are ignoring their mobile phones, for example, or being a real-world avatar in a meeting.
"Once you get the price down, you can put it into homes," he said. "You could have virtual visits from doctors and nurses."
iRobot plans to sell a developer version this year and a business version next year.
"Our goal is to get the installed base up, so you can get started writing apps for robots, so we can achieve this vision of robots doing things impactfully for us in our lifetimes," Angle said.