The Robot With a Smartphone Brain

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One limitation of robot kits is that they can be complicated to use and build, and even the simplest ones require some hardware expertise. But now anyone can turn their smartphone into a robot, thanks to the folks at Romotive.

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The concept is quite simple: A smartphone or iPod Touch can be docked into the device, which comes in the form of a wheeled chassis, to be used as its “brain.” But that simplicity is what makes the robot, called Romo, powerful. Since the controls are contained entirely within the phone, they can be downloaded as apps. Users can add new physical capabilities and functionalities to Romo -– a claw, or a scoop -– without needing to update their phones.

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Also, the device is controlled through the headphone jack, which simplifies the design and allows users to link it to more than one brand of smartphone.

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Romotive turned to Kickstarter to raise money and had planned to raise $32,000. They have long since passed that target (hitting $92,684 on Nov. 18) and will stop taking pledges on Nov. 21. If you pledge $78 before then, you get a Romo and $141 gets you two.

So what can you do with a smartphone-based robot? The founders of Romotive, Peter Seid and Phu Nguyen, have come up with a few applications. At this point they have a racing game, and you can program your Romo to carry an iPhone around as a kind of spying tool (the view from the floor isn’t as useful as it might be, but that isn’t the point). On their site they ask both software and hardware hackers to come up with more software and share their findings with others.

Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Robomotive, told Discovery blogger Eric Rogell that while the Romo doesn't yet have many specific tasks in mind, that could change fast, just as it did with personal computers:

“It was basically geeks in garages playing with compouter chips and writing code,” says Rinaudo. “They were building computers that couldn’t do anything, and the business people laughed. They’d say, ‘What is it good for? Why in the hell would anyone want a computer in their home?’ It took people hacking and believing and being nerdy enough to figure it out … and ignoring all the investors and businesspeople. Now we say how ridiculously ignorant those investors and business people were.”