Road Warrior

They may be good company, but personal robots can't yet change your work life

I once offered my wife $100, no questions asked, if she would pack my bag for an upcoming business trip. I'd been on the road, living out of a suitcase, for several weeks and had just stopped home for a night. She took the money and packed. I dozed, every once in a while answering a question about the location of a dress shirt or a preference for a particular tie. And the next morning I was off again.

As any road warrior knows, being on the road regularly can be a real grind. You want the time in between trips to be productive and restful, but sometimes that's just not possible, so you resort, as I did, to bribing your partner. Of course, it would have been better if I'd figured out a way to get my suitcases packed and myself readied that didn't involve either my wife or me, since that would have given us some quality time together.

So when I read about a new robot -- a "homebot" that's called Cye, from Probotics Inc., in Pittsburgh -- my ears perked up. Cye, it seemed, could be the answer to my stopover woes.

Immediately, I got on the horn to Henry Thorne, CEO of Probotics and the inventor of Cye. An orange unit shaped like the head of an upright vacuum cleaner arrived a week or so later. The product sells for $695 and includes a "homebase" for recharging the homebot, a radio link, a short instruction booklet, and mapping software that loads on your PC (sorry, it's not Mac compatible), which you use to teach Cye the lay of your particular land. (The bigger the rooms and the fewer the obstacles, the better chance you'll have of successfully training Cye to follow a route on his own.)

I thought I'd try to get Cye to help me clean up my home office as well as shuttle between my bedroom closet and my office carrying the stuff I needed to pack for my next trip. But after playing a bit with Cye (the software loads on easily, and Cye moves with a simple click and drag of the mouse), I realized that in order to have him do anything more than memorize a pathway, I'd need some attachments -- specifically, the wagon attachment, which sells for $89, and the cordless-vacuum attachment, which sells for $129.

The wagon arrived first, and I got to work mapping a route between my office and my bedroom. Cye doesn't climb stairs -- a lesson I'd rather not recount here -- so you can only map routes between points that are on the same floor. Also, Cye works best on carpets and rugs, but he can handle tile and wood floors without too much trouble.

Those were minor limitations, however, compared with what I learned next: although Cye can maneuver between rooms, to date he has no arms, so someone has to be stationed at the other end of the route to load on the clothing, toiletries, magazines, and the other stuff needed for travel. My response? I set Cye in motion and ran to the bedroom, piled the clothes in the wagon, and then ran back to the office, where my suitcase was readied, and relieved Cye of his burden upon his return. While this provided a good aerobic workout, it wasn't really a practical solution to the packing problem.

It's also possible to load up Cye's wagon with dishes, a coffeepot, snacks, and other sundries, as it has a rather sizable area in which things can rest. But again, someone needs to load those sundries onto Cye and then greet him at the delivery area. I thought about doing that but decided instead to just drink the coffee while I was at the coffeepot.

It turns out, however, that Cye is the perfect size on which to seat a 20-pound, 1-year-old grandson, who can place his sippy cup in one of the beverage holders on the wagon. I could then ride said grandson around the house as he held on and shrieked in delight. ( Inc.'s lawyers have advised me to make it clear that I am not recommending this usage, as the device was not built according to the safety specifications for cruising 1-year-olds, but I must say that I found it to be the most terrific application of all those I tried.) Hence my grandson spent the better part of one Sunday morning riding around the house, giggling and occasionally looking bewildered when Cye bumped into an obstacle and started beeping like R2-D2 of Star Wars fame.

But I wanted to know what road-warrior-worthy chores Cye could do besides entertaining a toddler. So I sent an E-mail to Henry Thorne and asked. Thorne reminded me about the cordless-vacuum attachment that I'd ordered, which had not yet arrived. If you have a big, relatively empty room (preferably one with a rug on the floor), he said, you can program Cye to follow a regular vacuuming route. (One customer complained that Cye's sprocketed wheels made unseemly indentations in his rug, so be forewarned that Cye does leave his mark.) Perhaps I could use him to clean my house while I was out of town.

My office is not what you'd call a wide-open space. It's a large room, but there are at least a dozen piles of manuscripts, books, and magazines strewn throughout. For Cye to vacuum there, he'd need to do a series of hairpin turns -- not exactly his strong suit. But once the vacuum attachment arrived, I did try to run him around a bit. And as long as I stayed tethered to my PC to guide him around the clutter, he did a fine job. Again, not an optimal enterprise for a man who basically lives on the road.

"I cried when I boxed Cye up and returned him to his maker," Alan McDonley told me. His Web site stands as a tribute to his old friend.

In fact, Cye is not yet capable of doing your chores without your being actively involved. Still, at $695, he's a lot cheaper than the $2,500 robotic dog called Aibo that Sony introduced in 1999. While Cye doesn't wave his paws or play with a ball, he does vacuum (albeit with restrictions) and is as good company as any inexpensive robot on the market. Thorne plans to introduce more add-ons to Cye in the future, since the homebot is equipped with an expansion port that "can power lights, sirens, and sensors, and you can receive input from both digital and analog devices."

To date, Thorne says, Probotics has sold 293 units since Cye's introduction, last June. During the first six months of his life, Cye had already built up something of a cult following, complete with Web sites constructed by devoted fans. Alan McDonley has one of the most elaborate of these, titled " Robot Cye," in which he recounts his lifelong dream of finding a companion robot. He's included pictures of Cye in action as well as a photo of Cye's inner workings.

I asked McDonley if he had actually used Cye to perform chores around the house. "No," he said, "I never had any thought that a robot could be anything but amusing company, intellectual exercise, and a great conversation piece." After moving to a smaller apartment, though, McDonley decided he had to return Cye to Probotics because the homebot didn't have enough reference corners to get his bearings. "I cried when I boxed Cye up and returned him to his maker," he told me. His Web site stands as a tribute to his old friend.

As for me, while I know that Cye will not make my traveling days any easier, he may be serving a far greater function. When I was on the road and Cye was docked at his homebase, my daughter and grandson paid him a visit. My grandson, who had just begun walking, waddled down the hallway that leads to the kitchen where I'd parked Cye before taking off. He stood in front of the contraption, pointed at it, and peeped out, "Papa, Papa." In a high-tech road warrior's life, moments like that are what make it all worthwhile.

When he's not impersonating a small orange robot, Jeffrey L. Seglin is an editor-at-large at Inc. He's the author of The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart (John Wiley & Sons), due out this month.