How ConnectR Works

iRobot's ConnectR. Like a curling stone, except smarter. See more pictures of robots.
Photo courtesy iRobot

iRobot, a company founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists, recently revealed the revolutionary ConnectR. Its newest robot looks a little bit like a curling stone, with a reddish-orange color reminiscent of the set of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The company has had success with its other robots, including the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner; the Scooba, a robot mop; and the Verro, which cleans pools. A gutter-cleaning robot, the Looj, was revealed by the company the same day as the ConnectR.

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But the ConnectR is different from its siblings. Rather than to serve a strictly utilitarian function like cleaning floors, it was created for social purposes. As a virtual presence, the household bot is meant to keep far-off relatives and late-working parents connected to their families.

The robot is based on the Roomba design and features two high-resolution video cameras along with a two-way audio system. It can be controlled remotely, so fretful homeowners can look in on their house when they're away, and adept users could even conceivably play fetch with their dog remotely. Parents can play hide-and-seek with their children, grandparents can read a book to their grandchildren, and vacationing families can check up on the cat while they're away.

Since the ConnectR is mobile, the "host" family doesn't have to stop what it's doing to have a conversation with a distant relative. The robot ostensibly serves as a stand-in, and conversations can take place in much the same manner that they would if everyone were in the same room.

So how does it work? The ConnectR is based on the Roomba design, so it's highly mobile and won't tip over easily. But the company doesn't say anything about stairs, and traditionally, Roombas have a difficult time with stairs and tend to avoid them entirely through their design.

The ConnectR's audio-visual equipment is what separates the robot from its siblings and makes the ConnectR a virtual presence.

  • Video: The two high-resolution cameras mounted to the top of ConnectR form a single feed. They can zoom up to 16.7x and can move up and down 220 degrees. By using the ConnectR's wheels, the cameras can move 360 degrees horizontally.
  • Audio: The two-way speaker is essentially a speakerphone that uses a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) connection -- a phone that uses an Internet connection rather than traditional telephone lines to carry voice data. Since the ConnectR is mobile, it uses a wireless broadband Internet connection for carrying video and audio streams.
  • Interface: The entire process is controlled via software that is installed onto the remote user's Windows XP-capable computer. The person controlling the ConnectR from a remote computer does so through the interface that comes with the product. This interface includes the video and audio feed that the robot captures and motion control. The user can control the robot's movement through the joystick that comes with it, or with his own mouse or keyboard.
  • Power: Like the Roomba, the ConnectR comes with a rechargeable battery. When the robot begins to wind down, it will make its way back to Home Base, where it can recharge.

It sounds like the ConnectR could enable families to stay closer, but there may be some kinks left in the robot's design. Read the next page to see some of the potential problems associated with the ConnectR.


ConnectR: Potential Problems

Could it be used to gauge the viciousness of your family's dog?
Image courtesy iRobot

iRobot's ConnectR is a far cry from what the science-fiction writers of a few decades ago envisioned a social robot would be, but is it a first step? Does ConnectR represent the real beginning of robot-kind?

Perhaps, but we won't have to worry too much about ConnectR taking over the world, like many of those same science-fiction writers predicted. The product doesn't have any intelligence of its own; it's controlled by the humans who use it. Aside from its surveillance capabilities, the robot is fairly innocuous. Even if all ConnectRs revolted against their families, the result would amount to little more than a lot of bruised ankles and crushed ConnectRs.


Still, there are some potential problems with the ConnectR. Security is one of them. The ConnectR software requires users to enter a phone number for the VoIP connection and a personal identification number (PIN). Each robot is programmed for up to 10 separate PINs, and it allows access by one user at a time. iRobot supposes that this information will be guarded as a secret by the family, but family secrets do have a way of being leaked to non-family members.

The ConnectR's function is meant to be purely social, and iRobot envisions its product as a means of keeping family members in the loop. But the ConnectR could also enable unwanted visitors to be connected as well. Hackers may find a way to use the ConnectR to case a house, check on the viciousness of the family dog or ensure that no one is home before breaking in. That problem is easily remedied using the ConnectR's privacy mode, which shuts off the robot's cameras and audio. This can be a two-way street, however. ConnectR owners who are away at work could use their robot to inspect their homes for intruders. If homeowners disable their robot before they leave the house, hackers won't be able to access it -- but neither will the homeowners.

iRobot has taken steps to protect its ConnectRs against unwanted users. In addition to the passwords and unlisted VoIP phone numbers, the ConnectRs operate via iRobot's secure wireless network, its virtual presence network (VPN). But since the company alone controls the VPN, this means that select iRobot employees could have access to all of the ConnectR feeds in use at any given time, as well as any information passed through its network. This could possibly deter people who really value their privacy from buying the robot.

Will the ConnectR's potential pitfalls keep the world from adopting this social robot? That won't become clear until the market research comes in. Early adopters have a chance to get their hands on a ConnectR for $200 as part of the company's pilot program. By agreeing to fill out a few surveys and participate in an interview, select consumers can get one before they're widely released for $500 in 2008.

For more information on ConnectR, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Cericola, Rachel. "iRobot Unveils 2 New Robots" Electronic House. September 27, 2007.
  • Jewell, Mark. "Robots Take On Social Tasks." AP September 28, 2007.
  • Lombardi, Candace. "iRoboto CEO: Forget 'The Jetsons'." CNet. September 27, 2007.
  • Mokey, Nick. "iRobot ConnectR." Digital Trends. October 3, 2007.
  • Page, Lewis. "iRoboto Offers Crawling Wi-Fi Spy-N-Chat Housebot." The Register. September 28, 2007.
  • ­Ruiz, Matthew. "iRobot announces release of ConnectR, the spy-on-your-kids robot." infoSync World. September 28, 2007.