Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robot Love

David Levy, artificial intelligence
researcher at the University of Maastricht, Netherlands, told

recently that by 2050 Massachusetts would
become the first jurisdiction to legalize robot weddings.
Observes Levy, “At first, sex with robots might be considered
geeky, but once you have a story like ‘I had sex with a robot,
and it was great!’ appear someplace like Cosmo magazine, I’d
expect many people to jump on the bandwagon.”

Robots are set to become a big market. In
2005, the South Korean government

the country would have the world’s third largest
robotics industry by 2013, exporting some $20 billion worth of
products, or 15% of the global robotics market. If their
forecast proves correct, this suggests a worldwide robotics
industry of about $135 billion in just five years.

That’s mega growth. This may explain why
such formidable players as Honda and Toyota have established
robotics development divisions. Toyota’s trumpet-playing robot
shown back in 2004
, but besides a robotic corporate tour

, little news has been heard from Toyota.

Honda’s ASIMO robot
, which stands for Advanced Step in
Innovative Mobility, and which has been in development for 21
years, is currently on tour in Australia and is featured in a
Honda corporate image campaign currently airing on U.S.

This past December, the British Government
released a report that predicted that

robots could one day demand legal rights
. If David Levy’s
prediction that we can bed and wed robots by 2050 proves true,
then contracts and rights will not be far behind.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

European Virtual World

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Pay Up, Kid, or Your Igloo Melts

LIKE many 10-year-olds, Laila Rodriquez adores stuffed animals, but
when she asked her parents for a particular stuffed cow, cat, duck and
dog she had an ulterior motive — the toys come with an access code to
an online game that allows her to take care of virtual “pets” (one for
each stuffed toy), to cook for them and to furnish their rooms.

“I’d like to have 10 pets, because once you get 10 you can get an
exclusive bed,” Laila explained while playing the game, Webkinz, at
home here one afternoon after school last week.

The “exclusive
bed” is as pixelated as the pets, but at least Laila’s parents have
four real stuffed toys to show for the $60 they spent on the game.
Laila also just discovered another Web site,, which charges $20 for an “angelic potion” and other “virtual thingies,” as Laila put it.

Her 7-year-old brother, Jared, wants to be a paid member of Club,
the popular Web site for children. That would cost his parents $5.95 a
month and enable him to amass virtual knickknacks for his virtual
penguin and the virtual igloo it lives in.

But Jared’s and
Laila’s father, Hubert Rodriquez, 43, has ruled out buying toys he
can’t touch. “You pay real money to get virtual use,” he said. “There
doesn’t seem to be any value in that.”

Article Link

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

U.B. Funkeys

Webkinz competitor Plus: In the wake of the Webkinz phenomenon, everyone’s trying to
introduce their own version of the real-to-virtual world tween product.
One that is finding success is Mattel’s U.B. Funkeys.
A slightly more sophisticated take on the plush critters that inspired
them, Funkeys are vinyl figures that also have online identities in a
virtual world called Terrapinia.

Eliminating the problem of people stealing the codes off Webkinz toys
in stores, Funkeys must be plugged into a USB docking station, which in
turn makes the character’s avatar instantly recognized in Terrapinia.
There are 40 different Funkeys, each falling into one of three types
-“normal”, “rare”, and “very rare”- with the more “rare” models having
greater capabilities within Terrapinia. Just as with Webkinz, Funkeys
owners can use their avatars to play games to earn points to buy
virtual merchandise. We hear that parents are also enjoying the inside
joke storylines, making Terrapinia the virtual world equivalent of a
family friendly CGI movie.


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US Mobile Monthly Consumption of Content and Applications

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Playhut opens kids' virtual world

More toy makers are joining the virtual worlds' fray. Playhut, a toy
company known for making physical play structures like inflatable fire
engines or playhouses for kids, is trying its hand at online virtual worlds for the 6 years and older set.

On Tuesday, the company said it launched two online worlds--one for
boys and one for girls--under the brand Kraze. The free
sites enable members play games, dress up virtual characters and chat
with friends--once parents send a permission slip via e-mail to the

Playhut has stiff competition
online, however. Rival toy brands Mattel and Hasbro run online game
sites for kids that are among the top 15 most-visited among children,
according to research firm ComScore. Mattel's Barbie brand also
recently opened a new virtual world for girls that is pegged to a line
of MP3 player dress-up dolls.

Article Link

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Nokia 800 Robot Dog

This is what happens when a forward-thinking cellphone giant gets
together with a bunch of its future potential customers — a robot
dog made from an N800. The children at a Nokia-funded school in Finland
came up with this idea of having an internet tablet that doubles as a
Article Link (Gizmodo)

Virtual worlds threaten 'values'

In his speech Lord Puttnam voiced fears about the many
game worlds that have sprung up which tie access to the virtual world
to the purchase of a toy.

Webkinz, Funkeys, BarbieGirls, TyGirlz and many others are all virtual worlds created and run by toy makers.

"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we
can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of
themselves as not much more than consumers?"

He said: "Might we not prefer to build worlds that
encourage those same values and skills we wish them to exercise in the
real world?"

"The challenge ahead is this - to ensure that virtual
worlds are increasingly places that offer real meaning to their lives
and in the real world to learn from the sense of community and
collaboration that's been experienced in virtual worlds," he said.

Matthias Mikshe, founder and head of Stardoll, said many
firms were developing virtual worlds for children because young people
were far more familiar with them than their parents.

Specifically answering Lord Puttnam's point Mark Hansen,
director of business development for Lego Universe, said children were
very good at determining the underlying ethic of a virtual world.

"Is it positioned to sell more product or as an extended
experience with the product they have already bought?" he asked. "Kids
are very smart and will spot that really quickly."
Article Link (BBC)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Next-Gen Tomy Heli-Q RC Helicopter Takes to the Skies Next Month

japanese toy giant Tomy says it's about to roll out the next generation
in tiny copters, and it's calling this one the Heli-Q. The company says
this is the world's smallest radio controlled toy helicopter, but other
than its smaller size, its specs seem similar to those of Picco-Z
Styrofoam helicopters we've flown before.
The Picco-Z took a 20-minute charge of its battery to give us an
eight-minute flight, but Tomy conservatively says this Heli-Q will fly
for five minutes on each charge.

Article Link

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Virtual Toys Coming for Holidays


This holiday season, expect to be bombarbed by a slew of toys interacting with the Web.

avalanche comes as the nation's toy companies try to mimic the enormous
popularity of Ganz's Webkinz, plush pets that come alive online with a
secret password, and follow children to where they're going - online.

Hasbro Inc.


the nation's second largest toy maker, is the latest with its launch of
a virtual spinoff of the popular line of Littlest Pet Shop collectible
miniature pets. The initial line includes a series of five plush toys -
a dog, cat, turtle, penguin and panda.

Once kids are online, they
can "officially" adopt their pet and play games to rack up "kibble
points," which can be spent to buy outfits and snacks for the digital
version of their pet, or decorations for their pets' virtual houses.

launch the new collection, which will initially only be available in
New York and on Hasbro's Web site, the Pawtucket-based company has
opened a temporary store on New York City's Fifth Avenue.

Hasbro says it will release 18 more VIPs in the spring, when it releases the toy line globally.

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PLEO(TM) Life Form by Ugobe(R) will be part of a hot "tech toy" lineup at The Sharper Image this holiday season.

In stock now is oodles of wow at The Sharper Image (NASDAQ:SHRP),
the headquarters for this seasons hottest
trends in toys and technology. Thats
because the retailer is expecting a tech and toy season predominantly
driven by consumers desire to interact with
products that allow them to escape, fantasize and have fun. Fuzzy
slippers and plush toys that dont have sound
chips or sensors have become wants of the past and have been replaced by
coveted items like PLEO the Camarasaurus
and a vast array of robotics, electronics and high tech dazzlers.

We pre-shopped the marketplace and have
brought to consumers some of the hottest tech products that capture
imaginations and entertainment hours. When it comes to holiday gifting
consumers are looking for the WOW factor that they have come to expect
through technology, stated Drew Reich,
Executive Vice President of Merchandising for The Sharper Image. The
hottest gift categories for this holiday season will be tech toys and
robotics with sophisticated sensory systems and cameras that can beam
pictures to computers and cell phones.

The toy of the season, PLEO Life Form by
begins life as a newly-hatched baby Camarasaurus
that moves organically, expresses emotion, explores autonomously and
responds to the world around him. As PLEO grows
up, he develops his own unique personality shaped by his interactions
with its owner. A sophisticated sensory system includes a color camera;
sound, touch and motion sensors; and 14 finely tuned motors with over
100 gears.

Other interactive robots include the Robopanda®
Interactive Robot ($149.95),
an animated singing, story-telling
robotic companion ideal for young children and robot collectors that
performs more than 40 lifelike movements. Star Wars®"
fanatics will want the R2-D2 Interactive
Astromech Droid ($119.95),
which is
voice activated and recognizes 30 phrases, responds to commands, and
plays games while serving as a dedicated helper and loyal friend. He
navigates with sonar and infrared sensors.

Robots bring out the child in all of us and
captivate and fascinate consumers of all ages,
added Reich. While we have a robust
inventory, indications are that these are the hottest gifts of the year
and we urge consumers to preorder through our website.

Other hot to have and cool to give
toys and products include:

Article Link

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The battle is on for young Bakugan fans

October 19, 2007 - Thousands of children will
converge on the Square One Wal-Mart tommorow in hopes of getting their
hands on a super-popular toy.
will be after Bakugan, a card-based game that lets children battle each
other as fictional characters. It's geared towards boys age six to 11
and is currently one of the fastest selling toys in the world. It was
created by Spinmaster.
"It's sold out in most of Canada," said
public relations spokesperson Dale Gago. "They (stores) can't even keep
the toy on the shelf for more then a week."
The game has also been spun-off into an animated TV series.
Wal-Mart will stock the shelves with thousands of games. The price will
vary from $5-$20, depending on how many cards and how much game
equipment you want.
Spinmaster will also have game demonstrators outside the store, playing the game and giving out free cards and game figures.
Children can enter a 3 p.m. draw. The winner will be literally drawn into the animated TV show.

Article Link

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Are kids ready for ads in virtual worlds?

Some [virtual worlds] boasted of successful experiments with
marketing. For example, preteens are driving virtual Toyota Scions on
sites such as and Gaia Online, and they're wearing the
latest digital fashions from DKNY at Nickelodeon also talked about coming plans to run "immersive" ads in its 3D environment for kids ages 7 to 14.

roduct companies creating branded content to appeal to kids is as
old as the first days of television. But Montgomery and others say
virtual worlds and related games change the equation for brand
marketers because a child's interaction and emotional engagement is so

"This is a very powerful medium for marketing because it involves
this huge engagement. It's more powerful than a sugar cereal
commercial," said Bob Bowers, CEO of Numedeon, whose Whyville members spend about
three and a half hours a month on the virtual world. He added: "Therefore there need to be standards."

So far, the only regulations protecting kids online are through the
Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998. The
legislation stipulates that sites targeting children under the age of
13 must post a detailed privacy policy and obtain permission from
parents to collect any personal information about them. COPPA doesn't
deal directly with advertising.

Research firm Parks Associates expects that advertisers will spend $150
million in virtual worlds by 2012, up 10 times the spending in 2006.
Though still a relatively small amount, it excludes marketers spending
on their own virtual worlds, like

Companies that have experimented with advertising in virtual worlds
include Disney, Capitol Music Group, Kellogg's, Pepsi, Toyota and
Warner Bros. In one example of such campaigns, pay-as-you-go mobile
phone company Kajeet opened up a "chat factory" in Whyville this spring
that allowed tweens to personalize their chat bubbles by color and

Club Penguin has attracted as many as 4.7 million users in
September, up 147 percent from a year ago, and it is expected to mark
$35 million in earnings--before interest and taxes--from subscriptions
this year. Disney bought Club Penguin for $350 million in August.

Nickelodeon launched its kid virtual world Nicktropolis in January, and
10 months later, the site has nearly 5.5 million users who spend an
average of 55 minutes per visit.

But Whyville's Bowers said at the conference that kids are more
sophisticated about marketing than people suspect. "You just need to do
it in a different way," Bowers said. "It has to be something they will
contribute to and own, and not to broadcast to them."
Article Link (

The Gogic Racer: a Transformer in disguise

Check it BumbleBee, Gogic Five
just got himself a Racer extension kit allowing him to auto-maniacally
transform from a walking, talking menace to a four-on-the-floor racer.
A plodder really, with acceleration more akin to John Deere than
Ferrari. Still, a robot that can stomp out your sentient juices and
then back over you to finish the job is worthy of our attention. The
racer add-on is available in Japan for ¥8,400 or about $72 --
that's about $300 for the entire kit.
Article Link (Engadget)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Disney walks line with digital kids, parents

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Can a legacy
company known for polished storytelling stay relevant to a generation
of kids growing used to telling their own stories?

That's the tough question for Paul Yanover, executive vice president
and managing director of Disney Online, which runs and the
newly acquired virtual world Club Penguin. Yanover spoke here Wednesday
at the Virtual Worlds conference and admitted that growing Disney's
Internet properties is a work in progress. After all, one of the
world's most popular brands for children ended up buying newcomer
virtual world Club Penguin for $350 million this summer.

"It's a new space for us to figure out," Yanover said.

On the Internet, the company is focused on three things: fun, safety
and integrity, Yanover said. That means that Disney's sites must be
engaging and safe for kids, but they also must hold to an established
story line consistent with the company's brand and delivering on
parents' expectations. For example, Yanover joked that he'd have a hard
time putting up a digital billboard in Disney's upcoming Pirates of the Carribean virtual world.

That's why Disney Online veers toward structured environments built
around a story or game, and the company will continue on that path, he
said. But down the road it plans to explore offerings that give kids
more control over their experience. It's already dabbled in that area.
In January, Disney Online allowed kids to create their own fairy, and
run a Web site around the animation. Three million kids participated.

Still, a parent in the audience asked that Disney offer tools to kid
members of Club Penguin so that they could build things in the virtual
world. Yanover said he liked the idea, but hinted later that it might
take some time to bring in that functionality.

"We're a polished content company. But we're moving down the spectrum of participation and user-created additions," he said.

Article Link

Friday, October 12, 2007

RoboPhilo: A Humanoid Robot for Less Than $500


Designed for the entry level enthusiast, the RoboPhilo packs the
functionality of more complex and expensive robots into a much more
affordable package. He comes complete with 20 servos that control the
head, waist, thighs, and joints along with a controller with 24 servo
channels and up to an 8 I/O interface. You can even hook him up to your
PC and program him to execute your personalized movements.
Article Link (Gizmodo)

New Tachikoma spider robot on the loose

Ghost in the Shell fans, unite. Your favorite killer spider
is back once more, as Bandai is delivering a newfangled version which
stands 9.5-centimeters high and connects to your PC via USB.
Apparently, this creature comes bundled with software which enables it
to play back voice messages and fire up mini-games when it's not
emitting sounds through the built-in speaker or catching your eye with
its integrated LEDs. Unfortunately, it looks like this creature won't
actually be uncaged until next February, but that'll give you some time
to save up the ¥13,440 ($115) that you'll need come launch day.
Article Link (Engadget)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Universal avatars

Second Life screenshot, Linden Lab
A virtual character, or avatar, for all the virtual
worlds in which people play is the goal of a joint project between IBM
and Linden Lab.

The computer giant and the creator of Second Life are working on universal avatars that can travel between worlds.

The project aims to open up virtual worlds by introducing open tools that work with any online environment.

The project started by IBM and Linden Lab aims to create
a universal character creation system so people only have to create a
digital double once.

While the character's appearance may change depending on
where it is taken, its basic characteristics, such as looks and
underlying personal data, would be retained.

Initially the partners will concentrate on creating a system that lets people move between worlds.

Later will come the universal character creation system that lets people create a single avatar to venture into online worlds.

The partnership was announced prior to the start of the
Virtual Worlds conference taking place in San Jose, California, from
10-11 October.

Virtual worlds are rapidly becoming hugely popular. When
the first Virtual Worlds conference took place in early 2006 only nine
such cyberspaces were widely known. In 2007 more than 30 will be on
show at the Virtual Worlds meeting.
Article Link (BBC)

Conceptual YABO robot longs to be your friend

C'mon, who couldn't adore someone, er, something with a face like that?
Pictured to the right is YABO, a conceptual robot that was apparently
designed for "lonely, unmarried persons." If brought to reality, it
would sport a myriad sensors including one for hearing, feeling and
infrared, while also featuring a built-in camera, internal speaker,
wheels and an LCD display. YABO can communicate with its (presumably
single) owner by rotating and changing the color of its face, or it can
just snap back responses if it's feeling talkative. Moreover, the bot
could reportedly disable unused devices and adjust the temperature to
save energy while you're out trying to find an actual human to love.
Article Link (Engadget)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tomy’s i-SOBOT: The World’s Smallest Bot

And in the world of hobby bipedal humanoid robots: introducing the i-SOBOT, “the world’s smallest fully functional bot,” according to producer Tomy. The robot, at 6.49 inches tall and 350g, may look puny - but equipped with 17 servo motors throughout the body as well as a gyro sensor, the i-SOBOT can perform an impressive range of movements as well as speak and dance (but please, don’t ask him to do the robot).

The tiny bot is controlled via voice and remote control and can also serve as an interactive music player, responding to applause and other user commands. But what really caught our attention was i-SOBOT’s ability to do what we’d been waiting for: the mini-bot produces its own punching and kicking sound effects, meaning entertaining bot-on-bot combat is only a few tinkerings away. (They can even get in shape pre-battle - they’re programmed to do push-ups and move from sitting to standing without assistance.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Optimal's Purchase Strategy

Group's plan for the company includes efforts to expand its sales and
distribution by widening its sales channels, particularly outside of
North America and in emerging markets; expanding its product design,
development and product capabilities to offer an increased product
assortment as varying price points; adding products that combine
"computer connectivity, utility and entertainment; embarking on branded
entertainment initiatives; and seeking out potential acquisition

Branding in Tween Worlds

Kids are consumers (virtually)! That was the message on the “New School” panel at the YPulse Tween Mashup on Friday. Speakers from Stardoll, WhyVille, and Cartoon Doll Emporium all recounted that young users of their virtual worlds wanted brands brought into their online environments.


Mattias Mikshe, CEO of Stardoll, said that users were begging for real
world brands (“everything from Gap to Gucci.”) This is what led them to
create “StarPlaza,” an in-world mall stocked with virtual brands (they
now have 9). LVMH-owned Sephora and DKNY just became the first real
world brand to set up shop there (featuring the same items as the
stores). Cartoon Doll Emporium, a similar “paper doll” site, is also
working with offline brands.

virtual world meets social network WhyVille has 3,000 different lines
of clothing—by 3,000 different girls. CEO Jim Bower says they want to
have a Whyville store with the designs from 12 year olds. But kids in
WhyVille aren’t immune to brand fever: one group of kids actually
created M&Ms costumes for their avatars. Over in WeeWorld,
users “consistently asking for brands to better express themselves,”
says Marketing and Editorial Director, Maura Welch. “By choosing to
wear the assets,” she says “the users are endorsing the brands to their
friends.” According to the site’s latest food and drink survey, users’
WeeMees (avatars) were jonesing for some Sprite, Gatorade and Cheerios.
As it is, they can already pimp themselves out in Armani sunglasses
while they pop Skittles.

According to Mikshe, the kids can “distinguish between being
marketed to and adding value.” Or maybe the marketing has just done its
job. The demand is there for the brand names, creating a pull rather
than a push scenario. And now that these brands can provide utility
online, they are becoming more and more integrated into the lives of
young consumers.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Barbie Girls too much like 'Mean Girls?'

NEW YORK--Who's running things over at Mattel?

The Barbie Girls MP3 player that doubles as a paper doll with plastic clothes is now out.

First, I don't think parents should pay $59.99 for an MP3 player
with 512MB of storage, even if you can dress it up. For that price I'd
recommend spending a little more and getting their child the "big kid"
iPod Nano or Shuffle you know they really want. To be fair, the device
can hold a microSD card of up to 2GB.

But that's not my real problem with this tech toy.

Plugging the MP3 player into a computer grants the owner entry into new places in the virtual world that non-buyers of the device won't have access to. It also gives you access to "exclusive" virtual purses and pets.


While I understand Mattel's desire to offer some sort of reward for buying the device, the concept of creating a virtual velvet rope seems destructive to the Barbie image the company has been struggling to improve.

"It's the next-generation fashion doll. We've always evolved with
how girls play. It's all about music, being online and fashion," Lauren
Dougherty, director of PR/Communications for Mattel Brands, told CNET from the floor of DigitalLife 2007.

If Mattel is serious about reinventing Barbie's image and keeping up with the Webkinz of the world, maybe it should think about the overall picture.

As this writer was once a little girl who drooled over the outfits
created for Barbie by some of the coolest fashion designers, I'm not
anti-Barbie in the least. I just wish she was a little more Brenda
Starr and a little less Paris Hilton. This is 2007, right?

Of course, this is the same company that in 1992 thought it was a
good idea to make "Math class is tough" one of the lines for its Teen
Talk Barbie.

We all know how well that went over.

Article Link

iRobot and the Frankenstein Complex

will American’s learn to stop worrying and love robots? That
question must be echoing inside consumer robotics company iRobot (IRBT).

The Burlington, Mass., company went public nearly two years ago and
its share price has spent much of last year below the $24 offering
price. Revenue from consumer products –60% of iRobot’s
revenue last year – fell 1% in the first half of 2007 from a year

Some of that decline was tied to waning appeal of iRobot’s
flagship consumer product, the Roomba vacuum. But iRobot had some new
products up its sleeve, and it announced them
last week: a robot to clean out rain gutters, and a mobile robot that
can send images of kids, pets or the infirm to remote PCs. The
response? iRobot’s stock was down as much as 3.2% Friday, hardly
a standing ovation.

Much of the press also seemed
indifferent, if not disappointed, reflecting a very cautious attitude
in the U.S. for robots in general: “Weird New iRobots
Unleashed” (PC World); “Robot Invasion Escalates” (Washington Post); “iRobot’s New Products Could End Up Lonely and Unloved” (

Where’s the robot love? In Asia, apparently - and in Japan, particularly. But in the U.S. there’s a robot dread running like an undercurrent beneath our robot fascination. Isaac Asimov called this robot-phobia “the Frankenstein complex”, and it is deeply ingrained in American and European culture. Take a look at this list of the 50 best movie robots: From Hal to T-2 to the Fembots, we Westerners applaud evil robots and their fourth-reel destruction.

Neena Buck, a robotics analyst quoted in the AP’s coverage, noted a sharp difference in robot comfort between East Asia and the West.

“In the U.S., we want our robots to be utilitarian,
and act as helpers to us,” Buck said. “In Japan and Korea,
they think of robots as friends and pets, and as additions to their
families.” But as prices come down, “I think Americans will
be willing to experiment with cute-ish robots that do something like
bring a family together.”

The culture gap is evident in this video
of Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot, breaking into a trot. The
children and adults in the audience seem delighted, but my puerile
American mind felt more ambivalent: I felt both impressed by the
achievement and amused by a robot running like someone who is, shall we
say, desperate to defecate. I also found iRobot’s photos of perfectly behaved children observed by the ConnectR creepy in a way I can’t describe.

And yet, I like the idea of affordable household robots that iRobot
pioneered. iRobot built the Roomba like Apple (AAPL) built the early
Macintosh: Both created from scratch an original platform that others
can create applications for. Both made a machine simple to operate and
easy for middle-class consumers to afford. And both popularized a
fledgling industry that had massive potential over coming decades.

But household robots face an obstacle that personal computers didn’t: the Frankenstein complex.

Not only are we revolted by robots that are overly humanoid, we are
also cold to robots that are overly utilitarian. We don’t want
robots to be too much like us, but we are bored if they aren’t as
fancy as the ones we’ve seen in movies.

I still think household robots could be a huge market down the road,
and that iRobot could be a big player in it, but it will take decades.
In the meantime, a lot depends on how companies like iRobot manage our
contradictory feelings about robots.