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iRobot offers crawling Wi-Fi spy-n-chat housebot

Now grandma can have a sticky-beak whenever she likes

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Robo-vac and wardroid manufacturer iRobot has debuted a brace of new products today, in a move keenly anticipated among bot-lovers. Sad to say, the robot butler or Heinlein-style* Hired Girl™ mechanical scullery maid has yet to appear.

The most interesting of the new iRobot offerings is the ConnectR, which is a refinement on existing IP webcam tech. Keen home networkers have been able for some time to install IP cams with built-in web servers in their houses or wherever. One can then log into the camera across the internet from a remote location, seeing and maybe hearing what's going on. Only the home router needs to remain powered up, rather than one or more computers as would be the case with a conventional USB webcam.

ConnectR takes this technology and puts it on the same motorised chassis that iRobot uses in its line of Roomba autonomous floor cleaners. Absent parents and grandparents can thus vicariously roam about in the home, looking around at what's going on and holding two-way audio conversations with residents.

Mmm, that hunky gardener's coming round.

I'll just turn off Bill's bloody robot spy.

Many IP webcams present certain security issues, and setup can be troublesome for unskilled users owing to the fact that a typical home broadband connection will have a "dynamic" IP address which changes from time to time. However, iRobot reckons it's dealt with these problems, using its own servers as intermediaries to deal with dynamic addresses and employing VPN tunnels for secure connections.

"Today iRobot is delivering to customers practical home robots that are affordable, effective and easy-to-use," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle in the company release.

"The future is now"<cringe>"and everyone can and should have a robot in their home today."

In the case of ConnectR, Angle means "everyone" in the sense of "everyone who has broadband, home WiFi and access to a Windows XP computer at the remote location."

The other new iRobot is the "Looj," which rather strains the definition of robot-ness. Looj is a small battery-powered machine designed to run back and forth along roof gutters and clean them out in a oner, rather than requiring repeated climbs up and down a ladder.

If the iRobot videos are to be believed, Looj is just the barber if you own a house with a lot of long gutters on it and don't care to hire a penniless wandering chimney sweep to clean them. Looj is on sale now direct from iRobot for $100.

As for ConnectR, that will go on sale next year for $500. However, you can sign up for a place as a beta tester right now; and if you're accepted you get your test ConnectR for $200.

Hmm. It remains to be seen whether the ordinary broadband household really wants a trundling, talking spybot roaming about in it under the control of possibility overly-inquisitive grandparents, absent but opinionated spouses, possible random hackers etc. Up to ten remote user accounts can apparently be set up for each droid, so all your friends and acquaintances can get in on the fun. Do make sure grandma doesn't leave her password lying about somewhere, though ...®

*The "Hired Girl" domestic-servant robot appeared in this book.

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