One of the biggest charmers at TED2013 so far has been Romo the Robot, who rolled and whizzed around the stage with one of his creators, Keller Rinaudo. With large bubbly eyes, four fang-like teeth, and a happy alien voice, it's easy to forget that this animated robot is actually just an iPhone mounted on a rolling platform.
"We wanted to build a robot that anyone can use, whether you're eight or eighty," Rinaudo told the audience. So he and his two friends - Peter Sodd and Phu Nguyen - all from Phoenix, created Romo, who you can control from an iPad, computer, or another iPhone after downloading its free app. The three twenty-somethings then started their company, Romotive, where you can purchase Romo for $150. I spoke to them after the talk.
What's the purpose of Romo?
Rinaudo: He's just a robot that anyone can program and hack. He's also just fun to play with. You can invite anyone to control Romo from anywhere in the world. We think of him as a robot, but a lot of people buy him for kids, especially because when kids create behaviors for him and they try to train Robo how to do things, they are actually learning about computer science. It's a really cool way to get kids excited about technology and robotics and coding.
How did you create your first prototype?
Peter Sodd: He [pointing to Nguyen] called me on the phone and said, "What if we could build robots that used smart phones as their brain?" Two weeks later I built the first prototype, and it worked.
Rinaudo: We built 100 of them by hand - at first. Then we built 2,000 of them.
RK: Yes. Now we're building 2000 of them per week. But not by hand.
What can you do besides hit the [touch-screen] joystick and make him move around?
Romo has a bunch of autonomous behaviors, which means he can interact with his environment, he can track you, and he can also use computer vision not only to track your face but also to recognize different glyphs. Something we're working on is the ability to hold different glyphs in front of Romo - we call it Romo glyphs - and what that allows people to do is program him. Romo knows that each card means something different and by holding cards in front of him you can create a program. And by changing the order of those cards and holding them in front of him again you can change the program. So that's our attempt to make programming accessible to kids who are even just six or seven years old - make it tangible, make it easy, and make it interactive with a robot that is actually going to show kids what they are creating in real time.
Is your primary audience kids?
We built Romo for 12-year-old versions of ourselves because we thought that advanced robotics shouldn't only be in research labs and factories - we wanted to figure out a way to get those robots into homes. It's in much the same way the first personal computers were called toys, and they appealed to kids and hackers who were sitting on the floors of their garages hacking on these things, getting them to do cool stuff. Same thing with Romo. But we don't think about whether the robots are for kids or adults. We build robots we think are awesome and that appeal to all ages of people.
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Carla Sinclair is the co-founder of bOING bOING and the founding editor-in-chief of CRAFT magazine. She has written several books, including Net Chick, The Happy Mutant Handbook, Signal to Noise, and Braid Crazy.