Although his 4,000 bits of memory, his alpha-numeric keypad and -- in particular -- his "teaching pendant" all take a bit of patience, to know Hero 1 is to love him.
Really, how can you hate a $1,500, 20-inch tall, 39-pound robot who announces "ready" every time you press his reset button, and "help, help, mayday, mayday, SOS, SOS" whenever he gets (literally) stuck in a tight spot? He can also sense objects in his path, point to light sources, hear intruders, say just about anything in the English language and, in general, attract the kind of public attention usually reserved for presidents and movie stars....
Which is exactly what the little droid that could did Monday afternoon, strolling along 19th Street, down the curb cut, across L, past Brooks Brothers, up to the Radio Shack store at the corner of K, where he hung a left and proceeded two more blocks to Connecticut and K.
"Does he do windows?" asked a man carrying a bucket and squeegee.
"Will he sell apples when he loses his next job?" queried a man in a blue pinstripe suit, coming out of Brooks Brothers.
"I'm afraid he'll take my job away," said a cabbie, who pulled over to the side of the street and climbed out of his taxi for a closer inspection of the little gray robot.
Hero 1, short for Heath Experimental Robot, was being put through his paces by Russell Drew, head of the Governmental Action Council of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which held a briefing on robotics in town last week.
Needless to say, the robot pretty much stole the show. It's one thing to play video games or watch R2D2 on the screen; it's another thing entirely to see a robot parading along an icy sidewalk, never once slipping, even though the humans around him are nearly breaking their necks to get close enough for a look-see.
"Robby, where have you been?" asked a Christmas shopper toting two large brown bags.
"Can he talk?" another man asked, and with that Russell Drew stopped Hero's forward motion, punched some commands into his keypad, and the mechanical marvel let loose with all sorts of computer-synthesized speech:
"It sure feels great to be out of that g box."
"I always do as I am programmed."
"People stare at me a lot; I guess it's because I'm so short."
"Robots need love, too."
Hero's speech is composed from 40 phonemes, which can be linked together to reproduce virtually any English word. His movements can be regulated by an external control box called a "teaching pendant," which Drew was using on Monday, or by a program sequence, entered through a keyboard or cassette tape. With the aid of his on-board ultrasonic ranging system, Hero can be instructed to stay up to eight feet from a wall: When things get a bit tight, he announces "too close"; a bit loose and he says "too far." If he's exactly on the mark, he'll say "right on." Standing alone in a room, he can detect the entrance of an intruder: "I heard somebody." A photometry system can sense lights, instruct Hero's single arm to point to the source of illumination and order his synthesizer to say, "Please turn off that light; it hurts my eyes."
The arm itself is a wonder to behold; it moves in six different ways, three at the wrist and three at the shoulder. On Monday, Hero was toting around a little plastic coffee cup. The window washer dropped a nickel in it.
"You've just started the robot welfare fund," Drew said. Another man tossed in a quarter. An 8-year-old boy walked up, spied the coins and said, "Boy, you need it. Robots are very expensive." In adult economic terms, that may not be quite true: Hero 1 can be ordered from any Heathkit store for $1,500; the company estimates it will take customers 40 to 60 hours to assemble him. A ready-to-go version costs $2,495.
"He's quite basic," said Drew. "The whole idea behind this project was to create a device that could teach people the fundamentals of robotics. Still, just about every aspect of the technology is covered here, and there are a lot of things you can do with him.Watch this."
Drew pressed a button and Hero announced:
"Tick tock, it is now four hours, 41 minutes and 53 seconds," also displaying the digits in his LED window.
"Even when he's in his sleep mode, he wakes up every 10 seconds to monitor his systems," said Drew. "So it would be easy to program him to walk into your bedroom and wake you up every morning."
Robots have just started to enter the marketplace in an affordable way, a trend directly related to the plummeting prices of personal computers, which act as their electronic brains. "I never make a mistake," Hero is fond of saying, "therefore you must be wrong." Three other firms besides the Heath Co. expect to begin selling personal robots in the next few months. Although it has been estimated there currently are only 3,000 robots in the country, a recent issue of Business Week predicted as many as 25,000 personal robots might be sold next year. An $8,000 Genus 1, available through Hammacher Schlemmer, can store 48,000 bits of memory, use its ultrasonic sensors to learn the layout of a home and then utilize a built-in vacuum cleaner to take on the family rugs. Genus 1 has some ability to recognize oral orders as well as synthesize its own speech.
"Your wish is my command," Hero says, perhaps defining the ultimate appeal of robots. No emotional problems here. He will remember your birthday all year long, and sing "Happy Birthday" on the appropriate morning...
Provided, of course, his four rechargeable batteries don't get too depleted, which they did Monday evening. Hero 1 flashed "Dr Lo" (for drive power low) on his LED display and got carried into a cab for the short ride home. He sat up with the driver, who never batted an eyelash, even when Hero announced, "I'm pooped."
Either this cabbie was jaded, or the age of the robot is already upon us.