In a carpeted hallway at the Hyatt Regency hotel here, a large bearded man was crouching over a small toy cat.
"Hey," said the man, whose name is Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari Corp. and thus someone of stupefying wealth and entrepreneurial panache. "Hey, kitty."
The cat beeped at him.
"How you doing today?" Bushnell asked.
The cat beeped again, conversationally, the middle beep sort of two-tone and meowlike.
"You having a good time today?" Bushnell asked, and nodded when the cat beeped back. "You don't know for sure," he said. Affirmative beep. "These are all your kind," Bushnell said, waving to the circle of men in business suits who had gathered around to contemplate the cat. "You should like them."
A few yards away, a small boy who had been weeping stopped midsob to look up at a Darth Vader-sized robot that had rolled out, dancing stiffly from the upper body and broadcasting Bruce Springsteen at some volume. The robot asked the boy's name, bent slightly, offered a ride on its back, waited politely while the boy climbed aboard and then rolled him away down the hall. "You've got such a nice laugh," the robot said.
So began Day 2 of the second International Personal Robot Congress, an annual gathering of human beings and their mechanical imitations. Here, to the fascination of their colleagues and a paying public -- consisting largely of entranced 6-year-old boys and their equally entranced fathers -- rolled small troupes of metallic and plastic creatures that introduced themselves, poured soft drinks, announced the time of day and sang extremely off-key versions of "Old MacDonald" and "Daisy, Daisy."
There was Topo, a sort of rolling geometric snowman that angles through obstacle courses and speaks foreign languages in a synthesized voice; and Hero 1, which recites poetry and shrieks at household intruders who fail to give it the proper password; and Pride, the 6-foot-3 structure of walking aluminum built by an unemployed robotics student from Kenosha, Wis. There were robots that looked like mechanical men, and robots that looked like rolling clothes hampers, and robots that looked like motorized turtles, or E.T., or kitties.
The kitties in this instance were Bushnell's. He has been developing them for the past year, and you will soon be able to summon them by standing in the right toy department and clapping your hands, which according to the pattern of your claps will make the kitties proceed, retreat and go to sleep. They are furry. If you pet them, they purr.
"It's kind of a silly little product, but it's fun," Bushnell said. "We did some market research. There's a significant number of people that want pets but are prevented from having them because of life style, allergy or rent restrictions." His "Petster Deluxe" will cost $100, but Bushnell thinks people will buy them anyway. "The crossover point of having this be more cost-effective than a regular cat is less than two months," he said.
Also, Bushnell said, this is a robot whose time has come. "I knew the world was not ready for the robot per se, because the expectations of what the robot could do were so much greater than the reality," he said. "It in fact isn't going to be like R2D2," the versatile mechanical sidekick from the film "Star Wars." So Bushnell decided "to enter the evolutionary chain much lower. Nobody's going to ask if your electronic cat can do the windows."
This is an occupational hazard for the manufacturers of personal robots, which have been available for purchase only for the last couple of years and still, unfortunately, cannot hold a candle to R2D2. Unlike industrial robots, which have received a good bit of attention for simply performing repetitive industrial work with intricately mechanized arms, personal robots have to compete in the public arena with movie counterparts that prepare full-course dinners, perform daring rescues, make charming conversation -- and also have small and rather well-paid human beings walking around inside them.
"It's really become a major hurdle for us to overcome," said Tomy Corp.'s Lou Gostinger. "People expect these things to do a lot more than they can do. The technology exists for these things to do just about anything, but the cost is just prohibitive."
Tomy's 1985 offering, a more elaborate version of the robot it introduced last year, is a personable-looking little party with robot arms, a chestful of control buttons and flashing yellow eyes. Its name is Omnibot 2000. It is about the height of a 2-year-old kid, and with appropriate programming will roll down your upstairs hallway, tell your children to get up for school, roll into your bedroom, pour you some orange juice (this requires a human to place the juice on the robot's tray) and urge you awake with pleasant recorded music.
"His head goes from side to side," Gostinger said. All the manufacturers refer to their robots as "he." Gostinger set a can of Coke and a styrofoam cup on an Omnibot 2000's tray, and then stood back and fiddled with the remote control. The tray revolved, the Coke can slid into the robot's hand, and the Omnibot grasped it and lifted it and tipped it toward the cup. A lot of the Coke went in. Then the tray turned again, guiding the cup into the robot's hand, and the Omnibot offered it to Gostinger.
Does the American public wish to pay $500 for a rolling alarm clock that pours Cokes? "It's more entertainment than anything else," Gostinger said. "It's really being purchased as an all-family purchase -- most of the time it's the parents who are going out and buying it, almost like a VCR."
Gostinger also observed that the company is preparing to sell certain attachments that will, for example, allow the robot to be hooked up to a small, battery-operated vacuum cleaner, or to a voice-activated telephone that would call police if an intruder appeared in the path of its photosensors. But the Omnibot will not defrost your refrigerator or have supper waiting on the table when you get home, and the most promising uses for personal robots so far appear to be veering away from the popular fantasy of a motorized slave.
"I don't think it's ever going to do windows, I really don't," said Nelson Winkless, a New Mexico-based consultant who has written a book about personal robots. "I think by the time we teach them to do windows, windows won't get dirty. Teflon windows or something, I don't know."
More plausible, Winkless said, are robots at work for the elderly and the disabled -- a recent Veterans Administration-sponsored study suggested that nursing homes might use robotics for such tasks as lifting and walking patients, keeping track of vital signs, feeding, and managing some simple kitchen tasks.
Schoolchildren have taken to them as well, Winkless said. "A kid sees a robot, the reaction usually is, 'What's its name?' You don't get that with a computer," he said. In one remedial language and math class for 7- to 13-year-olds, Winkless said, the teacher watched her students plunge into the business of reading directions and figuring out, for example, what 45 degrees or 0.5 seconds might mean.
"They don't think of that as reading," Winkless said. "I mean, the subject doesn't come up, 'Oh, God, I gotta read.' Kids who are too shy to speak up in class are right up there at the keyboard."