Ina Fried

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Reporter’s Notebook: It’s Robots Galore at Google I/O

I thought Maker Faire wasn’t for a couple weeks yet, but the show floor at Google I/O did a pretty good impression of that hobbyist tech show.

There were robots, robots and more robots. There were little toy robots built around Android phones and really big ones with tablets for heads. There were robots that used an Android phone as a remote control and there was a giant labyrinth that was itself a robot controlled by an Android tablet.

Even a “fireside chat” on Tuesday with Android’s key developers was shortened by 10 minutes to make way for a demo from iRobot.

Among the robots on display were prototypes from Hasbro of a robot called the Phonedox that turned an Android phone into a walking, smiling picture-taking robot.

“They ding, they dance, they kind of walk around,” said Michael Knight, who consulted with Hasbro on the project. Picking up the robot lets users interact directly by touching the robot face that adorns the phone’s screen. (They don’t like to be turned upside down, but do like being petted, I learned.)

At one point one of the Phonedox robots fell down, apparently low on battery. “It’s still cute when they fall, as long as it’s not your phone,” Knight said. Ah well.

The Phonedox is just a concept, Knight said, of the kind of toy that Hasbro might want to build some day.

Also in San Francisco for I/O was Orbotix, a company whose Sphero product is a robotic ball that can be controlled via an iPhone or Android device.

The company is aiming to ship at least a certain amount of devices this holiday season for around $130, slightly higher than the company’s original goal. The question, says CEO Paul Berberian, is just how many devices will get made this year.

“Do we make a thousand or do we make a million?” Berberian said. “We won’t make a million.”

The answer, he said, will depend on how well the manufacturing process goes and on feedback from early user testing that is set to begin around September.

In addition to the Phonedox and the Sphero, there were assorted other robots rolling around Google’s developer Sandbox, including a robotic version of the Android mascot.

But there was actually one person who didn’t think there were enough robots on display. Of course, that was iRobot CEO Colin Angle, whose whole business is making and selling robots ranging from the Roomba to military-grade devices.

“When I was growing up I always assumed there would be more robots than exist today,” Angle told the crowd of developers. The problem, he said, is that most robots don’t deliver as much value as they cost to produce, making them either a novelty or useful only for tasks that can’t safely be performed by humans, such as defusing bombs or examining nuclear contamination.

However, he said, the economics of the mobile industry could pave the way for robots that are more cost effective.

“I am here to make an appeal to you to help solve the challenge of lack of robots in the world,” he said.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus