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Useful and Playful Robot Gift Ideas for a Merry Christmas Holiday Season
Sherwood Ross - Pvnn
October 31, 2010
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Illustratrion from the cover of Popular Electronics Magazine, December, 1958
With so many families struggling to make ends meet this holiday season, the most welcome Christmas gifts likely will be practical ones that provide a helpful service. That being the case, don't overlook the robots! They never tire of working for you and some can also be programmed to sing a medley of Christmas songs including "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."

There are robots that will vacuum your floors, keep your family car at a safe distance from the car ahead of it, fetch you a beer from your refrigerator, or stand you to a game of pool. There are even kits for build-it-yourself robots who will perform a variety of tasks depending on what you assign them to do.

So says Frank Tobe, of Santa Barbara, CA, editor and publisher of The Robot Report, a continuously updated Internet magazine you can read at that brings readers the latest information about the constantly expanding world of robots from toys and tools to hospital operating rooms and battlefields.

For example, you can program robot vacuum cleaners to do all your floors while you're out and come home to a fresh-looking house. There's Neato, priced at $399, and iRobot Roomba, for about $380 "that show off what a single-purpose robot can do," Tobe says. "They can navigate around the room without breaking anything and operate seamlessly on different types of floor surfaces."

A robotic device that will make your family car safer is adaptive cruise control. Utilizing radar that is installed in your front grill, the device will automatically slow your car down if you are getting too close to the vehicle ahead of you. The version for a Ford is about $295 and the one for a Mercedes-Benz is $2,900 (which also includes parking assistance). "This is something every motorist who drives a car should have, particularly if you do long-distance driving," Tobe says.

A do-it-yourself robot kit is available from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 that you can use to build as many as four robots that will do your bidding. LEGO provides 619 pieces and will teach you programming as you go along. It contains software sensors so that the robots can see, move (using motion detectors), and speak. "You can build it in the form of a humanoid or an alligator," Tobe says. "It's up to you and your imagination and kids as young as 10 should be able to construct with it. If you can dream it, you can build it." List price is $279.

More on the fun side is the Parrot AR.Drone QuadriCopter, a remote-controlled flying-and-hovering machine that Tobe says "combines the best of many worlds, including autonomous flying, video gaming and augmented reality." It can be controlled by an iPhone, iPad or iTouch and features a number of sensors including frontal and vertical cameras and an altimeter so that the controller can set the flight height. This retails for $299.

Grandparents and their grandkids are showing a keen interest in Pleo, a scientifically accurate baby dinosaur "that looks, moves, sounds, and behaves like a living creature." Tobe says, "It is fully aware and cognitive and explores its environment and interacts with people. Pleo is equipped with sensors for sight, sound and touch. It feels joy, sorrow, anger and annoyance and expresses itself with realistic dinosaur sounds." Personality downloads include Holiday Pleo - where petting Pleo in a certain place makes him change his Christmas tune. A joy toy at $299.

Speaking of dinosaurs, there's WowWee Roboraptor, a predatory robot "with instincts to match his wild technology," Tobe says. "His mood determines his behavior. He'll go into predatory mode, nervous and cautious mode, or friendly, playful mode, depending on how he wakes up. A laser tracking system allows you to draw his path and RoboRaptor will follow it without banging into objects like table legs." For pre-teen boys. Price: $59.

Specially designed for pre-teen girls is Bossa Nova‘s Penbo, a Robotic Penguin and her baby that is affectionate to you and her baby. She responds to your touch and sound and speaks "Penguish," yes, 'Penguish." Press Penbo's ear and an egg magically appears from her pouch. Penbo calls for, and interacts with, her baby, plays hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo baby games and rocks her baby to sleep. Price: $82.

For the little kids, ages 4 to 8, is Zhu Zhu Hamster, which has its own unique personality and whimsical sounds. "You can pet them, love them, and hear them chatter," Tobe says. "It's fun for children to provide them with accessories and watch them interact on their own timetable and agenda." Price: about $37 with accessories.

Finally, for the millionaire who has everything but doesn't care to put another servant on the payroll (or the alumni wanting to make a useful contribution to his alma mater‘s robotics lab), there's the class act of personal robot servants called PR2 from Silicon Valley‘s Willow Garage (the "garage" in the name referring to the number of successful new products that got started in entrepreneur's garages). "This life-sized robot is able to navigate in human environments and has the dexterity to grasp and manipulate objects in those environments," Tobe says. "It can clean up with a cart, fetch a beer from the refrigerator, play a respectable game of pool and is programmable to meet your needs and ideas at any level." The PR2 robot comes with open-source free software and lists for $400,000.

Further information on the above gifts may be found on The Robot Report, which gathers industry news, tracks the business of robotics, and has developed proprietary (ROBO-STOX

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