Romotive’s iPhone on Wheels Gets Kids Riled Up About Robotics

Xconomy National — 

The little girl screamed and tried to run faster as the robot closed in behind her.

It may sound like a scene from a cheap horror movie. And if I told you that the little girl in question was my 3-year-old niece, and that I provided the robot, you might think me a very bad uncle.

But in fact, I’m talking about Romo, a wheeled gadget that turns an iPhone into an adorable “robot pet.” And my niece Lucy was screaming in delight, not fear. One of Romo’s skills is recognizing colors, and by showing it a pink ball, we’d inadvertently caused it to lock onto Lucy’s pink shirt and chase her around the kitchen.

I’ve rarely seen a kid go quite so bananas. Lucy, admittedly, is still a bit young to appreciate the complex hardware and software engineering that went into the chase game—but her reaction to Romo’s little hunt was one of the clearest reminders I’ve seen of the well-known power of robots to get kids excited about technology.

I’m not sure how much Lucy and her 6-year-old brother Kieran have really learned from playing with the Romo unit I’ve been testing lately. And I’m pretty sure the device could do more to deliver on its promise as one of the first successful home robots outside the vacuuming-and-mopping category. But there’s no doubt that Romo, alongside other new kid-oriented products such as Play-i and Anki Drive, exemplifies a big shift in the way we think about robots, and in the roles being carved out for them. Along with other big trends like the shift to online teaching, low-cost robots are changing the way kids get introduced to concepts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which means parents and educators need to pay attention.

Romo is the creation of Romotive, a San Francisco startup that got off the ground with help from thousands of backers on Kickstarter (full disclosure: I was one of them) and has now raised almost $12 million from investors such as Sequoia Capital, Felicis Ventures, and Stanford University. Born in Las Vegas as a nerdy experiment backed by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, it’s grown into a 20-employee company with a vision to “build the world’s first affordable personal robot.”

On the hardware side, Romo is basically a roving, rubber-treaded base with a mount for an iPhone 4 or an iPhone 5. It costs $150 and is available exclusively from Romo’s website or from Brookstone. The base can be steered remotely using a computer or a second iPhone or iPad—which makes Romo into a roaming telepresence device; think Skype or FaceTime on wheels. But it’s the personality built into the Romo software that captures your attention first. Never has the term “interface” been more appropriate.

To see what I mean, watch this 6-minute TED talk from 2013 by Romotive CEO Keller Rinaudo. (By the way, you can also meet Rinaudo at Xconomy’s upcoming Robo Madness event on April 10.)

As you can see, Romotive worked hard to anthropomorphize Romo, turning the iPhone screen into a face that can express everything from excitement and puppy love to anger, boredom, and disappointment. It’s this face, and the cute sound effects as it responds to your actions, that make Romo into what MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal would call a sociable robot, engaging you in terms you immediately understand. You quickly forget that it’s just a phone docked in a tiny tank.

But what’s such a robot actually good for? Once a company has figured out how to use a smartphone as the brains and the face of a mobile robot—a sweet technical accomplishment, for sure—what’s next? I think that’s a question Romotive is still exploring.

The company mounted two successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund development of its first- and second-generation robots, raising $285,000 in all. Judging from backers’ comments, it was the general coolness of the idea of marrying a smartphone with a mobile base, plus the prospect of hacking and reprogramming the device, that got people excited and helped Romotive build a community of early adopters.

As Romotive has grown up and turned into a real consumer robotics company, its emphasis has understandably shifted away from geeks and hackers to the larger market of gadget buyers—the Brookstone crowd. The company does offer a software development kit, which outside programmers can use to write their own software for Romo—so eventually there could be a whole ecosystem of apps that interface with the roaming base.

But Romotive’s own website and product packaging emphasize two main sales points: the telepresence feature, and the training system that allows kids to program Romo to execute a series of behaviors. I want to share a few thoughts about those two aspects of Romo.

1. Telepresence

Once your iPhone is attached to the Romo base, you can call it from a second iPhone or iPad using the free Romo Control app. That turns the device into a roaming video camera, which you can steer using video-game-style controls on the screen.

Riding on the Romo base, the iPhone’s front-facing camera is about 7 inches off the floor, which means the caller has a cat’s-eye view of the world. That’s great for playing hide-and-seek and chasing the real pets. But it makes for strange conversation, since the caller has to peer up at everything, and the people around Romo have to peer down. For a more comfortable telepresence experience, a roaming camera and screen need to be much higher, they way they are on (far more costly) robots from companies like Suitable Technologies or Double Robotics. You can put Romo on a tabletop, but it’s inadvisable—the base moves so fast it would be easy to drive it right over the edge.

Also, in my tests, I found that calls placed through Romo Control often didn’t connect properly—either there was no video, or the controls weren’t active. Romotive uses Tokbox, the face-to-face Internet video provider, as the underlying platform for this feature, so it’s possible that the problems I was having were traceable to Tokbox’s network, rather than the Romo software. Either way, I feel like Romo’s two-way video feature is a novelty at this point, rather than a reliable telecommunications tool. It’s definitely not what I’d call Grandma-ready. With more work, though, it could be.

2. Training

This side of Romo is more fleshed out. The conceit here—explained in a series of animated videos in the Romo app—is that Romo is an alien who’s traveled to Earth, and needs your help training for the Robot Space Race. This involves completing a series of missions that familiarize the user with Romo’s capabilities. According to Romotive, the missions are also “designed to teach you concepts in programming and robotics without a textbook or instruction manual.”

That’s accomplished using a simple visual interface that lets you assemble a list of instructions for Romo. In the first mission, for example, you learn how to make the device drive a specific distance forward or backward, at a specific speed, and how to pause and turn. Later, you learn how to control Romo’s facial expressions, how to train it to recognize colorful objects (the better to chase them around), how to make it follow a line on the floor, and so forth.

Once you’ve unlocked all the missions, there’s a “Lab” area where you can string together any sequence of actions. For example, you could make Romo zoom forward 5 meters at 100 percent speed, turn 90 degrees to the right, make an angry face and a farting noise, take a picture, and speed back to his original spot.

You can see the potential for mischief here. Kieran, the 6-year-old, took to the system immediately; he seemed to like choosing different faces and noises the most.

But strictly speaking, he wasn’t learning programming skills. I hope he picked up the idea that robots are programmable, which could pique his interest in further STEM activities and careers. But Romo’s interface isn’t in the same category with true visual programming languages such as Scratch. The system doesn’t allow for much precision, and editing the command sequences is tedious. Playing with it for more than a few minutes makes me yearn for an actual editing interface.

That, of course, is exactly what the company is trying to avoid. In the video below, Romotive roboticist Adam Setapen says the goal was “to cut out the learning curve by making an educational experience that’s so much more personal and fun for a child than sitting in front of a computer with a text editor.”

And I get that. But there’s only so far you can go without learning some actual code. And learning how to code is, in turn, the avenue to a more systematic way of thinking about just about everything, not to mention some of the hottest careers on the planet.

I’d say the Space Race game, in its current form, is at best an enticing gateway to more formal types of programming. The key is to make sure that kids who fall in love with Romo get a chance to move on to introductory computer science training.

Let me be clear: Romo is very cool, and for $150, you are not going to find a more versatile or entertaining home robot. I spent more than two weeks visiting my brother and his family in Alaska over the holidays, and not a day went by when Lucy and Kieran didn’t ask me if they could play with Romo. Technically it’s designed for kids aged 8 and up, meaning they’re a bit young for it, but even so, it was clearly a hit, and I’d love to take it back to Alaska next winter. Romotive keeps upgrading the Romo app, so by then we’d probably have whole new training missions to explore—and new ways to keep Lucy screaming.