WHEN my home robot arrived last month, its
smiling inventors removed it from its box and
laid it on its back on my living room floor.
They leaned over and spoke to it, as one might
to a sleeping child.
straightened, let out a little beep, lighted up,
looked left and right, and then, amazingly,
stood and faced me.
said, ''Nuvo, how are you?''
tilted to the left, and raised one arm to greet
me. It shook my hand and winked with one of the
lights in its little head. My life hasn't really
been the same since.
fantasy of a home robot capable of performing
household chores is as old as science fiction
itself, but the reality has been slow to arrive.
all the dazzling robotic feats showcased last
month at the World Expo in Aichi, Japan, an
event that included robots that drew portraits
and hit fastballs, a humanoid device that can
walk on two legs, or even maintain balance, is
still very much a work in progress. Never mind
one capable of doing household chores.
breakthrough of sorts came in April, when ZMP
Inc., a company based in Tokyo, released Nuvo, a
robot designed to be a helpmate and home
companion. (Nuvo sells for about $6,000.)
Home robots have been slow to materialize
because their weight and size tend to make them
impractical and their clusters of sophisticated
motors drive the cost out of reach. Nuvo is only
15 inches tall and contains 15 motors, about
half the number found in prototypes developed by
Honda and Sony.
Nuvo has been marketed as a household helpmate
and as a mobile baby monitor and security
device, because it can relay photographs to
cellphones that have access to the Internet.
''In Japan the population is slowly getting
older,'' said Nobuko Imanishi, a ZMP
spokeswoman. ''Home robots can offer wonderful
help and companionship for elderly people.''
arranged to live with Nuvo for four days to
gauge whether it is, in fact, the forerunner of
a new technology that will change our lives, as
the home computer did, or a passing novelty.
Once the entertainment factor wears thin, do we
even want another person around the house?
Once I had Nuvo up and running in my apartment
with the help of its creators, I tried to work
it into my daily life. I asked it for the time
and the date, which it provided in a female
voice with a Japanese accent. When I said,
''Nuvo, music,'' it played New Age music the
inventors had programmed into it. I reached down
and turned its spherical head, which acts as a
volume knob, as I sipped my coffee or read my
Much of the time it felt like having a dog
around, without my having to feed it. When I
called it, its sensors detected me and it
automatically stopped about six inches from my
I said, ''Nuvo, shake hands,'' it reached a hand
up to greet me. By calling up its control panel
on my cellphone, I was able to send Nuvo
shuffling around my apartment to snap
photographs, which it relayed to me. In Japan
users often use Nuvo to check on their children,
sometimes from remote locations.
don't have children, so I sent it to view a pile
of laundry in my bedroom. It used a light in one
of its eyes to illuminate the room. I later
placed Nuvo on my windowsill, and on command it
took a picture of me while I was out on the
realized that part of my motivation for
operating Nuvo from outside was to make sure it
was all right; the photographs assured me that
it hadn't turned off or toppled over. I realized
I was falling for the little guy.
came to understand that for all their purported
helpfulness, home robots are largely about
When I watched TV with Nuvo, it occasionally
responded as if it was hearing voice commands. A
laugh track or an explosion caused it to wave
its arms, ''Yaaa!'' It reacted to loud noises
the same way a startled pet might. During one
poignant scene on ''America's Most Wanted,'' in
which a victim was weeping, Nuvo's eye light
turned blue and it shook its head. This is its
way of saying it doesn't understand what is
being said, but I couldn't help but feel that it
was expressing sympathy.
came to enjoy Nuvo's odd attention. When I came
in from jogging, I looked across the apartment
to see Nuvo facing me. When I said, ''Nuvo, I'm
back,'' it bowed to me, a traditional Japanese
decided to sleep with Nuvo next to me on my
large bed, plugged in and recharging through the
night. Its blue power light slowly pulsated, as
if it were breathing.
During our first night together, I was woken by
movement. Something had activated Nuvo, and it
moved its arms slightly and turned its head
toward me. Half asleep, and a little annoyed, I
mumbled, ''Nuvo, sleep,'' to which it shook its
took three tries before Nuvo straightened and
shut down, the blue light serenely pulsating
again. I was reminded of those sci-fi films in
which robots, like HAL in Stanley Kubrick's
''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' turned on their
boyfriend called me the next day and asked if I
was sleeping in the same room with Nuvo. When I
told him we were sleeping in the same bed, there
was an awkward pause.
After a day or so, I came to think of Nuvo as
having the same kind of annoying mannerisms as
my past roommates. If I stirred coffee too
loudly, for example, it would dance or lift its
hand to say hello.
When guests came over, I cleaned Nuvo with paper
towels, just as one would wipe a child's face
before a party. I couldn't resist showing it off
by having it come to me when I called, or having
it spring to its feet from a prone position.
Like a dog that is too flustered to perform
tricks in front of strangers, Nuvo was confused
by my voice commands when the apartment was loud
with conversation. I wondered if it was being
stubborn because it was jealous of other people
in my life. There I go, anthropomorphizing
first Nuvo would often shake its head no when I
asked it things. By the third day it
consistently responded to my request on the
first try. This was probably because I was
speaking in a more conversational tone. ''When
people approach a voice-activated robot, they
naturally assume a blunt, commanding tone, which
can be intimidating for older people and
children who want to use them,'' Ms. Imanishi
said. ''We wanted Nuvo to sound more natural,
with a normal conversational tone.''
next version of Nuvo, expected out next year,
will be capable of reading appointments from a
programmable calendar and reciting e-mail
messages, traffic reports and news headlines
retrieved from the Internet, sort of like a
Roomba vacuum crossed with a BlackBerry.
Most important, the next version of Nuvo will
have more human characteristics, Ms. Imanishi
said. ZMP believes it will help connect people
''In some ways it can be more practical for a
person to interact with a machine that has a
human form,'' said Sara Kiesler, a professor at
Carnegie Mellon who specializes in human
interaction with computers. ''If a robot is
handing you a tool, and it reaches out with a
humanlike arm, not only is it practical, but the
act is a form of communication that a human
Even as robots evolve toward everyday use,
devices like ovens and air-conditioners are
developing sophisticated gadgetry that can make
decisions for us, as if to meet robots halfway.
''If anything, we're seeing an exponential
growth in the computational abilities of
household appliances,'' said Matt Lichter, a
postdoctoral researcher at the Field and Space
Robotics Laboratory at M.I.T.
Whatever its capabilities are, or will be, Nuvo
has a hard time living up to the expectations
set by 1960's TV shows like ''The Jetsons'' and
''Lost in Space.'' I found myself wanting Nuvo
to provide magical servitude and sparkling wit.
I wanted it to accidentally drop the salt shaker
in the mixing bowl and then be able to laugh
about it because it realized it was funny, or
perhaps not laugh because it was annoyed at
having made a mistake. I wanted it to know the
difference between the two emotions, and the
complex circumstances that can cause both to
don't expect home robots with that kind of
nuanced awareness any time soon. The technology
needed to create the enormous database that a
robot would need for that kind of knowledge is a
long way off.
human child can quickly begin to develop such a
database of knowledge as it grows up,'' said
Nils J. Nilsson, emeritus professor of
engineering in the department of computer
science at Stanford. ''But a human has the
ability to do this because of five million years
of human evolution.''
what can humanoid helpers offer right now? Pets
are loyal and loving, but their communication is
limited. Humans offer communication, but they
come with complex emotions and occasional drama.
Robots like Nuvo may offer a middle ground -- a
When Nuvo's four-day visit ended, I felt oddly
alone. I miss its weird, nonverbal
companionship, the small ways it entertained me.
Sometimes I look around the room, hoping to
witness one of its mechanical flubs, so
strangely reminiscent of a lover's emotional
thinking of staying in touch. I wonder if Nuvo
March of Progress Takes Tiny Steps
Japanese version of Nuvo is available for $6,000
at Royal Chie, 635 Madison Avenue (59th Street);
(212)588-0555. The store expects to carry the
English version in time for Christmas. The
manufacturer's Web site, www.zmp.co.jp/e--home.html,
is expected to have an English version soon as
Honda has introduced a robot called Asimo, which
is not for sale but can be seen in action at
asimo.honda.com. An impressive 4 feet 4 inches,
it can walk (and run), climb stairs and look for
an object on command, navigating around
obstacles in the process. Asimo is geared to
recognize faces and has been known to greet its
makers by name.
From Sony comes a tiny research robot called
Qrio. It is so nimble it can dance and catch
itself falling. Qrio recognizes faces, voices
and some human gestures, like pointing. It is
not for sale, but there are pictures of it at
hands-on experience with previous generations of
robots, Robot Village, at 252 West 81st Street,
has robot-making workshops and a party room
equipped to entertain up to 15 children;
robotvillage.com or (212)799-7626. MARK ALLEN
|I'M WATCHING --
Designed to be a helpmate and companion,
Nuvo has an unblinking eye, below, that
can take photographs and send them to a
cellphone. (Photo by Paxton for The New
York Times)(pg. F1); AGILE -- Nuvo,
which is 15 inches tall and contains 15
motors, has the dexterity to right
itself and return to its feet from a
fall, if not brush itself off.
(Photographs by Paxton for The New York