Best and worst robots of CES 2013

Nicole Kobie
11 Jan 2013

Robots are one of the promises of the future -- like flying cars -- that just don't seem to be happening. Where's our robobutler, eh?

While we don't yet have a multitalented robot to act as personal assistant, there are many on show here at CES 2013 that have mastered specific tasks -- one will clean the gutters on your house, for example, while another crawls over your back for a massage. While that may not sound as impressive as the sci-fi movies imagined, on the upside these single-minded bots are unlikely to overthrow humanity and stomp us out of existence.

Here we reveal the most useful robots on show in Las Vegas this week, from a giant, cross-country spider to a robot doctor, plus a few of the less useful high-tech helpers clogging up the halls.

The best robots of CES 2013

iRobot's roaming doctor

This medical assistant lets an absent doctor communicate directly to a patient, through a videoscreen mounted onto a rolling tower. Tell the system which room to go to via an iPad app, and it rolls through the hospital, finding the path on its own. Once it's at the patient's bedside, the doctor can use the telepresence system to see and speak. The robot has a built in stethoscope but doesn't have any other sensors for monitoring patient health -- it's designed to help doctors, especially specialists, speak to patients when they can't be present, but not to collect any health data.

As it's made by the same company that makes the Roomba, the base and sensor technology looks similar to the automated vacuum cleaner, and it uses the same mapping system.  The medical assistant is set to start rolling out within months, costing between $4,000 and $6,000.

Cleaning assistants

The Roomba and other robotic vacuums have been cleaning our carpets for years now, but iRobot has a few other devices to shine home surfaces. The iRobot Scooba is tiny enough to scrub the floor behind the toilet, and the firm's Verro cleans swimming pools, meaning you'll have to find another use for the pool boy. If your gutters are clogged with leaves, the $300 iRobot Looj will plough through, tossing debris into the air and out of the way.

Washing windows is another irritating cleaning chore, but Ecovacs has a solution: it's like a Roomba, but defies gravity with suction to cling to your glass and give it a streak-free scrub.

If you're using the Winbot above ground level, it comes with a safety cord to catch it in case the suction slips, and if you don't trust the robot's sensors not to miss a spot when it cleans your windows, doors, or other glass, there's also a remote for manual control. If you'd rather not break out the squeegee, the Winbot is expected to cost between $300 and $400.

DreamBots massager

After lugging a rucksack across CES' millions of square feet of show space, DreamBots' WheeMe certainly appeals. This $69 massage robot crawls over your back, offering different levels of vibration as well as a "rotating caressing finger", which looks odd but we're told feels rather nice.

The WheeMe massager has sensors to keep it from rolling off your back, and if you sit up in the right way, it will crawl up to your shoulder so you can pick it up and turn it off. Otherwise, it shuts off automatically after 15 minutes -- apparently after that long, you should be fast asleep. The lady demonstrating it at CES certainly looked relaxed... and clearly has the best job in Vegas.

EatArt's robot spider and snake

If those are all a little too domestic, there's also EatArt's monstrous creations. The Mondo Spider was built in 2006, to highlight solar power. It's the world's first entirely zero-emissions vehicle, the group says, but that assumes a giant robot spiders count as vehicles.

The big spider made the trip all the way from Vancouver to be at CES, where it clomped around the central courtyard for the week, giving a few lucky people (but sadly not us) a ride.

EatArt also let loose its Titanaboa, a 50-foot metal snake with opening jaw that can slither around on its own. Sorry for the nightmares that's likely to cause...

If that's not terrifying enough for you, check out the next two robots...

And few of the worst robots...

Justin Bieber's dancing clone

The Tosy mRobo dancing robot launched at last year's CES with an appearance by the diminutive Canadian singer, but it again has a massive stand and hourly "shows" in the Las Vegas Convention Center, where it dances to the music being played out of the speaker in its stomach. That's it. Even Bieber fans must struggle to understand what's the point of this $200 toy. It's awkward, silly in a bad way, and involves Justin Bieber -- it's hard for us to like this thing, even if it does have a snazzy hat.

Fuzzy seals

These interactive, animatronic seals from AIST offer animal therapy without the animal. The Paro is designed to offer comfort to people in hospitals or otherwise needing a bit of a cuddle from something soft and cute.

While that's an admirable aim -- and as the Paro has been around for almost a decade, it's clearly working -- surely we shouldn't be offloading such very human tasks to creepy fake seals. Forget the technology, and give people in need a hug and a cup of tea. Alternatively, buy some puppies; they're probably cheaper.

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