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One of the funnier sights at this year's CES was a video of a hamster ball. It wasn't any old rodent workout – this one was steering a robot. The hamster seemed to be having fun, and the developer was having a ball too...

Behind it all was iRobot's Create, which takes the familiar Roomba and Scooba cleaners, and turns their common hardware into the core of a robotics development kit. Unlike many other kits, Create is ready to go as soon as you take it out of the box, with the familiar trilobite shape of the Roomba. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, there's a spacious payload bay, with standard fittings so you can add your own hardware to your robot. A fourth, rear, wheel has been added to make sure your creations stay stable.

The basic Create platform comes with 10 built-in demo applications and 32 different sensors you can use in your applications. The basic Create uses iRobot's Open Interface language to build simple applications using the Create's own sensors and motors. Your instructions are assembled on the PC and loaded onto Create via USB.

With iRobot providing the motors and many of the sensors you'll need, along with a SDK, Create makes a useful educational tool. The price is good too, with the basic hardware coming in at a very reasonable $129. You'll need to plug in the optional controller module if you want your robot to control additional hardware or use more sensors. This adds a programmable microcontroller along with four DB-9 ports for managing your own hardware. A breakout board and light sensors are due soon, simplifying adding hardware and adding new capabilities.

You program the controller with C or C++, rather than Open Interface – so this is an add-on for the more advanced robotics developer. Alternatively (and more adventurously), you can take advantage of Create's copious documentation and build your own interface boards using the 25-pin port used by the microcontroller module.

You can purchase these and other add-ons separately, or just hand over a few more dollars for one of iRobot's bundled kits – and if you're a school or a college using the iRobot tools as part of a course, 10 Creates can be bought for $999. At that price the Create becomes a BBC Buggy for a new generation of robotics hobbyists – and this time without the miles of ribbon cable.

Roomba hacking is already widespread. With Create you don't need to worry about breaking your vacuum cleaner – and you'll get a proven base for your own creations. Just remember, it won't clean up after you... ®

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