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We first locked eyes with Ava back in January, at the Consumer Electronics Show. This mobile robotics platform was mingling with the crowd, deftly avoiding obstacles, looking like a rolling piece of dental equipment with an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad for a face. Beautiful!
We saw her again this week at the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) I/O Conference in San Francisco, wearing a very different expression: a Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) tab powered by Google's Honeycomb Android operating system. Why would iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) let one of its pet projects wander around so far from home, brushing elbows with a bunch of grubby developers, when she's not even old enough to be an actual product? And why is she being two-faced?
The answers get right to iRobot's strategy for product development, which is being informed by the huge boom in independent development of open-source software platforms, and more generally by the power of crowdsourcing. Chief Technology Officer Dr. Tom Wagner said in an interview that iRobot's strategy is to throw Ava into the arms of waiting Android developers and see what happens.
For its part, iRobot believes Ava could fulfill potential applications such as roving security, factory inspection, and sales kiosks, but a crowd of developers might have a whole bunch of other ideas for her. So iRobot has created a soon-to-be released software developer's kit for the platform, and sent Ava out to woo the crowds at Google I/O. Wagner's team has already taken care of the moving parts.
"You, the Android developer, don't have to do any of the robot stuff," he said. "We give you a high-level API (application programming interface) so then you can write apps – without being roboticists, without doing 20 years worth of work."
One can imagine using, say, facial recognition software to allow the robot to find a specific person in a crowd and deliver a message or launch a video chat. Or Ava could accept a remote command via instant message to unlock the front door for the cable guy. Or something else entirely. That's the point.
As for that change of face, iRobot calls it "head-agnostic design" -- meaning the robot will work with a variety of pad devices. So Ava is equally happy with iOS apps as she is with Android.
After years without introducing any new consumer products, it's nice to see iRobot thinking about markets beyond housekeeping and defense. Ava follows on the heels of the 110 FirstLook, a tough, throwable robot meant to act as the eyes and ears of military personnel, but which could also serve as a template for future products. If this does prove to be the case, it will be a welcome development from a company that has leaned on the Roomba brand for too long.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you'd like to tell a robot to do using the comments box below. You can also rate iRobot in Motley Fool CAPS.
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