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.