Robot Roll Call: 10 'bots you can actually own

You love robots. I love robots. With the dizzying variety of them out there, don't you sometimes get down that you'll never be able to get your hands on one? After all, most of the 'bots we see are for the use of medical companies, the military and large corporations with enough money to throw into a little robo R&D. What's left for the folks at home?

Well, you may be surprised to discover the selection available (not to mention the price of 'em) when it comes to robots you could actually purchase. We've scoured the Internet near and far for bipedal 'bots, multi-legged walkers and some truly outlandish designs that you could take home with you if you're willing to pay the right price.

So click on through for a list of 10 buyable 'bots — see how much they cost and what they'll do for you.


1. BEAM 'bots: Handmade robotics (your hands)

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Solarbotics BEAM robots (which stands for Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics and Mechanics) offer an easy chance for people interested in learning what it takes to put together a simple robot, from assembly to soldering. Each kit has everything you need along with instructions and, when you're done, you'll be able to play around with colorful 'bots such as Herbie the Mousebot and the Jitterbug — built by your own hands. While the Solarbotics robots may not be as attractive as a commercially engineered one, you may find the satisfaction of building and operating your own more than makes up for it.
Where to get it: Thing of the Month has a bundle offer; Solarbotics sells a variety of kits as well.
Cost: $170 for the bundle, or $50-$100 apiece otherwise.

2. Tachikoma: A star from the big screen

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Fans of Ghost in the Shell, a series of manga, movies and television episodes based on the work of Masamune Shirow, will readily recognize the AI-controlled, multi-legged Tachikoma tank. Made by Bandai, this miniature version is just as perky and animated. It connects to your computer so you can program its movements and play games with it, and you can even have it perform odd tasks (like reading your e-mail out loud). What's more, it responds to voice commands in such a way that it simulates conversation. The Tachikoma will be scuttling across Japanese shores in early 2008.
Where to get it: You can put in for a preorder at importer AudioCubes.
Cost: $200

3. Spykee: Smarter than the average guard dog

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Spykee is designed to serve and protect. Controlled over a Wi-Fi network or by voice from a distance, Spykee docks when it's low on power and roams around your home sniffing out invaders. Spykee isn't all about work, though — it can play MP3s and can transform into a moon rover or a scorpion. That won't help it protect your home any better (well, maybe the scorpion would be more menacing), but it adds a little spice to controlling the thing. While Spykee can identify trouble, it can't stop it. You may want to only consider this patrol 'bot if home security isn't the only reason you want it.
Where to get it: Spykee is widely available at a variety of retailers.
Cost: $300

4. Pleo: One emotional dinosaur

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Due to debut in a couple of weeks, Pleo has had something of a rocky road to store shelves, and it's not quite there yet. Developer Ugobe aims to make each and every Pleo act in its own unique way, simulating a "birth" for the robot at which point it will follow its programmed urges to explore, graze, snooze and play — when it's in the mood, that is. Pleo can act happy, scared and even sad depending on how you treat it. If you've always wanted a pet that doesn't require any more care than a little attention, dropping some cash on a robot dinosaur may be money well spent.
Where to get it: Preorders are currently offered.
Cost: $350

5. i-SOBOT: Small doesn't mean simple

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The Takara Tomy i-SOBOT is a great entry-level 'bot. It might be marked down in the 2008 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest humanoid robot in production, but, despite its size, the bitty 'bot still has enough features to please newcomers and more experienced robot enthusiasts. i-SOBOT has plenty to say with 200 preprogrammed expressions ranging from a cheery hello to more ridiculous kung-fu inspired sound bites — with poses to match. Novices can stick to the remote and voice commands, though anyone who wants to delve deeper will appreciate the ease of programing long strings of actions. i-SOBOT can remember 80 actions in a row, stored to three buttons (for a total of 280 actions). It's not the most advanced robot out there, but your dollar goes pretty far.
Where to get it: Amazon's got some deals for you.
Cost: $350

6. Chapit: Service with a smile

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The baby monkey lookalike Chapit, by Fuji Housing, will help you control your home network without ever failing to smile. The Chapit can recognize an amazing 10,000 voice commands — turn on the lights, the oven, the microwave, whatever else you've got — and comes with a webcam built into it that'll let you video conference and record video and audio. The Chapit isn't due out until 2008 and may only grace Japanese living rooms, but if you have money to burn you may just be able to score one of your own.
Where to get it: Nowhere yet, keep your eyes open next year.
Cost: $1,700

7. Plen: The skateboarding robot

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Plen is a calm little dude who understands life's simple pleasures. It won't protect your home or bring you a drink — really it just kind of hangs out. Plen's in its element when in motion and maintains full control of itself — it can mount, propel and stop its skateboard all without your help. It will also follow some simple commands from Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as picking up small objects. Plen's fast-moving companionship isn't cheap, though, and it won't be buds with you unless you shell out some green.
Where to get it: Once again, importing is your answer.
Cost: $2,400

8. Actroid DER2: Talking to women made creepy easy

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Kokoro designed the Actroid DER2 to function much like an actress — it appears at events or offices as something like an attractive information booth. The Actroid's movements and facial expressions are powered by pneumatic muscles, and it's programmed to time those motions with its voice. The end result is an eerily natural look to its speech and presentation. If you want to hire an Actroid for a company function, don't expect it to be a cheap date — Kokoro rents the DER2 model out for as much as a real actress might make. But how much to get the Actroid DER2 out on a date with you? Well, you'll have to ask about that yourself, tiger.
Where to get it: Inquires can be made at the Kokoro website.
Cost: It's a rental — $3,500 for five days, with a $750 late fee, paid daily, for those who can't say goodbye.

9. Swami: A good head in need of shoulders

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What could a head in a bubble do, you wonder? Carry on conversations, for one thing. The Swami Conversational Robot is powered by a laptop computer (which comes included), has 30 motors in its face and small cameras in its eyes that all work in tandem to create an expressive conversationalist who'll be able to recognize people it's spoken to, give advice and make friends (or enemies, I suppose, depending on whether you like what it has to say or not). The Swami won't tell your fortune for free, however, as it costs a whopping $75,000. Luckily it's not designed to grow any more hair, so you won't have to groom its elaborate facial hair or those horns it calls eyebrows.
Where to get it: Neiman Marcus, of all places.
Cost: $75,000

10. iC Hexapod: The one and only

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If you want a 'bot you can't find anywhere else, then you've got to go straight to the designer. One such robo-wizard is Matt Denton, creator of the Hexapod line of robots, his most recent being the iC Hexapod. IC is a six-legged robot with a face-tracking camera — stare at it long enough and it'll take your picture. Denton has entertained the idea of assembling a plastic Hexapod kit for previous generations of the 'bot, but felt the plastic servos were too fragile for the average user and quality ones would make the kit far too expensive. Until he finds parts that match his standards for the plastic kits, the only way the rest of us could get our hands on a Hexapod is by commissioning one of the real ones and that wouldn't be cheap. Bear in mind Denton would most likely have to build the thing entirely on his own and pay for all of the parts out of pocket, and the total would probably come out to several tens of thousands of dollars.
Where to get it: Inquiries can be made at IC's website.
Cost: Well, that's up to Matt Denton.