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Retail Store Gambling on a Robot in Every Home

December 17, 1989

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ Going to a shopping mall to buy a robot may sound like a futuristic fantasy, but Jean Du Teau is gambling in the present on science fiction becoming fact.

Du Teau owns Robot World, a retail robot store tucked into a Rochester shopping center next to a maternity boutique and an optician’s shop.

Visitors are greeted at the door by RB5X, a small, gray figure with a shiny domed head who chirps ″Hello stranger.″

Du Teau, France-born president of Rochester Robotics Inc., opened Robot World in June to meet what he sees as a need for robots for the general public.

While Rochester Robotics makes robots for nuclear power plant inspection and modifies service robots for business use, Robot World sells mostly educational and hobby models to schools and computer enthusiasts. But Du Teau says it won’t be long before most of his sales are to people buying personal robots for their homes.

″Robots are today where computers were 10 years ago,″ he said. ″Most people perceive that the robotic age is going to happen in the year 2000. The robotic age is here.″

The store’s products range from RoboDuck, a $29 beginner’s robot for children, to RB5X, which costs $2,700 and is Robot World’s biggest seller to schools.

Cost is the main thing standing between most Americans and their own personal robots, Du Teau said. He expects prices to begin dropping as the number of new products grows. That, he said, is happening already.

Not everyone in the robot business is quite as optimistic. Household robots are coming, other experts say, but they don’t all agree on when.

″We’re still quite a ways from a robot in every house,″ said Jeff Burnstein, managing director of National Service Robot Association, an industry group based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Burnstein said robot technology is still developing. There just aren’t many home robots ready to be marketed that can do anything useful, he said.

″People think that there’s a market out there for home robots, but there just aren’t products.″

Dozens, maybe hundreds of researchers are working on robots, Burnstein said. He believes the main obstacle to getting them on the market is the lack of a major backer for robot products.

Burnstein thinks the robot revolution will happen sometime in the next decade.

″I don’t think we’re talking about 30 to 50 years away,″ he said. ″It’s just a matter of when there’s going to be a big breakthrough.″

Dana Ballard, a computer science professor and robotics researcher at the University of Rochester, sees the breakthrough as still further off, perhaps 20 to 50 years away.

Recent advances in technology have sped up robotics research, Ballard said. Many problems need to be solved before home robots can be made viable.

″I don’t think these things are going to be translated into marketable items in the near future,″ he said. ″Putting the whole thing together is going to take a while.″

Like Du Teau and Burnstein, however, Ballard believes that there will someday be a robot in every house.

″I think there’ll be a whole spectrum of machines that have various sorts of motor capabilities,″ he said. ″It’s hard to envision the form of these things because they haven’t been thought of yet.″

Home robots are unlikely to be all-purpose human-like creatures such as the lovable R2D2 character in Star Wars. A simple - for humans - task like getting a drink out of the refrigerator involves a whole series of extremely complicated procedures for a robot, Du Teau said.

″To have a robot that does everything - we’re a long way from that,″ he said. ″If we had a robot that would clean house we could retire by now.″

More likely are robots that perform specific functions - such as dishwashing, pool cleaning or security.

Security robots that roam the house, detect any usual movement or sounds and call the police, will be among the first home robots on the market in the next few months, Du Teau said.

Other robots that Du Teau says will be in the store by January include ″The Lawn Ranger,″a computerized self-propelled lawn mower, and Newton, a robot that can do multiple duty as a security guard, answering machine, alarm clock and language teacher for children.

″It’s somewhat of a gimmick, but it’s a nice gimmick because it has purpose,″ Du Teau said.

Purpose is what separates the new breed of robots from the smart but generally useless robots that made a brief foray onto the market in the early 1980s, Burnstein said.

At least six home robot products that will be on the market in the next few months, with more to follow next summer, Du Teau said. And while other entrepreneurs scramble to get in on the boom he’s sure is coming, Du Teau is already there - and already planning more branches.

″To me the most important thing is we’re the first,″ he said. ″We are pioneers.″

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