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ROVIO Rolls Out: First Impressions of WowWee's Surprising Telepresence Robot

October 6, 2008 | Chris Payatagool

We've always been enamoured with 'remote presence' as a future concept, but our experience this week with the new ROVIO robot quickly converted us from skeptics into true believers. This extremely well thought-out robot has been designed with the user's needs in mind from the start. The ROVIO is intuitive and is a pleasure to use from the moment you first open the box.

rovio.JPGROVIO's SF body styling makes it look like it just warped in from the Enterprise, or
through a stargate.

The robots upper surface is ringed by blue LEDs that are not only a cool style point,
 they also indicate the robots state, and make it easy to locate. The large circular sensor
picks up the True Track beacons reflected on the ceiling to determine it's location,
kind of like a mini-GPS system. The power switch and mini-USB port are located in
the center for easy access.

ROVIO has a built-in LED headlight to allow its camera to send back video and photos
even in darkened rooms. There is also an IR proximity sensor to help it avoid objects
when operating autonomously. This comes into play when you tell the robot to find
its way home by itself, or having it running a patrol route you've previously setup.

ROVIO's camera and location sensors are mounted on an articulated head so that
it can point the camera view at three different elevations - the floor view looking
straight ahead, slightly elevated (as in the photo above), or looking up (like a
puppy admiring its master).

The omni-directional wheels provide fantastic mobility - better than any other wheeled
robot we've tested, but do tend to pickup any stray hairs on the floor, as you can see
in the photo.

ROVIO's camera head in it's maximum elevated position.

For a quick test drive, we put ROVIO in our second floor storage room, then went back downstairs to drive it remotely using our desktop PC (Windows XP, though we also tested the robot using Vista) and our wireless network:

Painless Setup

Unboxing and configuring the ROVIO turned out to be much easier than we thought. We literally had ROVIO up and running within 5 minutes of opening the box. It was as simple as taking the robot and other items out of the box, installing the battery pack (Phillips screwdriver required - not included), connecting the robot to our PC, running the setup software, and answering a few prompts.

The battery pack is easily installed in the robots underbelly by removing the cover
(requires a Phillips screwdriver). The two large metal pads are the charging contacts
  that mate with the charger when the robot is docked.



 
The robot supports both Windows (XP or Vista) and Mac users. The Setup CD that comes with the robot includes software that configures Windows systems and a step by step procedure is provided for Mac users, and advanced PC users, to configure their systems manually. It's as simple as adding a new network connection then setting the TCP/IP properties.
 
The ROVIO software supports control over your local wireless network, remotely via
an IP address, or can even be assigned to a domain that you own, like
johndoe.myrovio.com (just an example).

Initially we satisfied ourselves with just running ROVIO around via our home wireless network, which worked without a single glitch. After we were confident that everything was functioning perfectly, we followed the ROVIO manual instructions to be able to access ROVIO remotely over the internet.

That turned out to be a little more challenging since it involves opening two ports on the wireless router (80 and 554). We had to pull out the documentation for our router, and dig through it to figure out what settings needed to be changed. Every users situation will be a little different depending on their particular router and ISP. Some ISP block outbound traffic on port 80, so the ROVIO manual provides instructions for using other port assignments.

It's important to note that ROVIO is username and password protected, and that you can setup multiple users.

Unparalleled Mobility

The ROVIO mobility platform consists of three powered omni-directional wheels. The unique wheel design enables movement in any direction - forward, back, shift left or right, rotate slightly or 180 degrees, or even spin in a circle - all at the touch of a button.

The motion panel is logically laid out and simple to use. The ROVIO icon in the
center is used like a joystick - just drag it in any direction and the robot responds.
The large white arrows make it move forward, back, or move laterally left or right,
as long as you hold them down.

 The two blue arrows at the top rotate ROVIO slightly clockwise or counter-clockwise.
 And, the blue dots around the outside quickly rotate the robot to a preset angle.
 Orientation is always relative to the robots body, and is intuitive since it matches
 the view you see via ROVIO's camera. 

Trail Blazing

 
The ROVIO allows you to create up to 10 'paths' or sequences, and play them back whenever you like. Each path can contain several actions, like driving a route, changing the camera elevation, or taking and emailing a photo. This can be very handy when you have regular surveillance tasks you want the robot to perform.

For example, your robot could scoot across the living room, take a photo of the front door and email it to you, scoot over to the dog's food and water bowls to take another photo and email it to you, then make a tour of the kitchen before heading back to its docking station. "Way Points" are like bread crumbs that you have ROVIO drop along any path you define.

Home Base

The ROVIO Charging Dock acts as its local home base. The robot backs up a short, shovel-shaped ramp until its rear wheel drops into a small trough allowing its charging contacts to touch the mating dock contacts. Thanks to the robots omni-directional wheels and dock design, when we backed our ROVIO into the dock for charging it aligned smoothly without any false starts or problems.
 
The Charging Dock also contains a mast that's used for alignment when the robot self-docks, and a TrueTrack Beacon that projects the navigation signals used by the robot to determine its location.

The beacon needs a clear shot at the ceiling to project its IR beams so that they will be reflected back down at the floor for the robot to track. This wasn't a problem for us, but if the room has extremely high ceilings (over 15 feet), tall furniture that could block the signals, or large windows with strong sunlight, the robot might run into some difficulty. The WowWee designers included two red alignment LEDs in the beacon that project dots on the ceiling to make it easy to setup properly. In normal operation the red dots are not visible.

One thing, that should have been obvious to us in hindsight, is that the Charging Dock needs to be placed against a wall or other stable object that will keep it from sliding on the floor when the ROVIO docks. The charging contacts in the dock are normally recessed, but pop-up to make contact when ROVIO's rear wheel drops into the trough at the back of the dock.

Just like Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin, ROVIO can automatically find its way back home. Once the robot is operational, and you have the dock positioned where you want it, then you click on the "Save Home" icon. The robot drives off the dock, checks its position using the beacon signals, then automatically redocks. Later, whenever you want it to go back home, just click on the "Home" icon and it will find its way to the dock, and even try to avoid obstacles in its way.

path_tab.jpg

The "Save Home" and "Home" icons are conveniently located on the control
panel's Paths tab.


Assuming the ROVIO is in the same room as the Charging Dock, when its batteries start to run low a warning message appears on the control interface. After you click on the warning, the robot figures out where the dock is located and trundles over and docks to recharge. Charging the batteries can take roughly two hours if the battery pack is depleted. Of course, if you continue to use the robot after the low battery warning is displayed, eventually it won't have enough power to find its way home. 

Some Limitations


Note: These apply to the unit we tested and may change with future production units.

Wireless Access Passwords - At this point ROVIO only supports WEP passwords for wireless access points. If your browser uses WPA passwords, then you'll need to consult your router manual to determine how to change it to a WEP password. Apparently WowWee is working on a firmware update to support WPA since the manual suggests checking the WowWee support website for updates.
    
Browser Support - To get full functionality out of the ROVIO, you'll need to use Internet Explorer 6 or later. For IE, ROVIO supports MPEG4 video and mono, 8-bit, two-way audio. For the Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Opera browsers, ROVIO supports M-JPEG (motion JPEG) but audio functionality is not available at this time.

This Is Not A Toy

As the robots box clearly states, "This is not a toy" - far from it. With the ROVIO, WowWee has delivered a highly functional and extremely useful robot appliance that will find broad application both in the home and in office environments. In addition to remote viewing - like home security, we plan on using it for video conferencing, especially in situations where there is a need to pan around the room, or to look at items - like new product models, from different perspectives.

Also, the ROVIO is small and light enough that it's easy to pick up and carry. It would be the perfect tool to carry around and give remote clients a tour of our facilities. For that matter, you could use it to let the grandparents feel they were right in the middle of a birthday party, even if they are hundreds of miles away.

Sanity Check

To get a sanity check, and to make sure we weren't overlooking something important about this exciting new robot, we asked Robert Oschler, the founder of RobotsRule.com and the leading expert on all WowWee robotic products, for his perspective:

"I feel Rovio's biggest advantage over other consumer mobile telepresence robots is the Northstar navigation system which allows it to drive itself. 

The reality is that people will find themselves fairly often in places where their broadband connection is spotty due to connection quality issues (frequent drops) or severe latency. Trying to drive with a poor video stream or where there is a severe latency between the time a movement command is selected and the time the effect of that movement becomes visible in your browser is a difficult task to say the least. 

Rovio will still be able to execute patrol routes perfectly since it can drive itself and can take high quality pictures at each waypoint automatically, if you set that up with the patrol route. These photos can be set to be automatically E-mailed to you via a selected E-mail account. This means Rovio can still be successful in its role as a home surveillance robot even when faced with the reality of varying web connections."

Conclusion

We think ROVIO is positioned to be the hottest robot for the upcoming holiday season, and for a long time to come. This robots functionality, usefulness, styling, and ease of use sets new standards. Not only is it a fantastic mobile webcam platform, it also lends itself to other applications. We can easily imagine colleges and research labs using ROVIO as a robotic platform to investigate swarming, or, on the lighter side, a new robot soccer league.

[via robert-dreams.org]







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