Rise of the robots

2006 could be the year when androids finally make it into the home. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports on the gadgets and gizmos set to conquer the world in the coming months
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The Independent Online

If you're into technology, you're living in wonderful times. Things are developing in leaps and bounds, especially gadgets. If you don't want to vacuum your house or serve drinks at a party, let your robots do it. If you want to listen to a jukebox full of music or browse the web on the move, the new generation of mobile phones will oblige. And if you want to see individual blades of grass during football matches (this could be crucial in a penalty shoot-out, after all), you need high-definition TV. So, let's look at the technology that's set to break through in 2006...


Backyard star-gazing goes seriously hi-tech with the Celestron SkyScout , which was judged to be the Best of Innovations at the New York Consumer Electronics Show (CES) press preview event in November. It's not difficult to see why.

The SkyScout is a hand-held viewing device that's capable of finding and identifying more than 6,000 celestial objects visible to the naked eye, thus transforming the night sky into your own personal planetarium. Joseph A Lupica Jr, the president and chief executive of Celestron, says: "There is a whole new generation of budding backyard stargazing enthusiasts who will now have the technology product they need to take their knowledge of the universe to the next level."

Using GPS (global positioning system) technology and a substantial celestial database, the camcorder-sized SkyScout enables stargazers to point the device at any visible object in the sky, press a button and then listen to a commentary. For the truly celestially challenged, if you want to view a star or planet but haven't a clue which bit of the heavens to look in, don't despair; the SkyScout's "locate" feature will guide you to it using illuminated arrows in the viewfinder.

Celestron is predicting that the biggest benefit of the SkyScout, which is due for release next month, will actually be for parents - it will help them to answer their children's endless, impossible questions about the sky and space.



Prepare to play, yet again... Due for launch in spring 2006 is the Sony PlayStation 3 console, which promises to revolutionise the way video games are played. "People are going to be totally blown away when they get a PS3 and play it," said Mark Rein, the vice-president of Epic Games, after putting the PS3 through its paces.

With 256Mb of main memory, a powerful 3.2GHz cell processor and an NVidia graphics chip, the PS3 provides fantastically smooth game-play and top-resolution graphics. Also - in case the whole family wants to play at once - the console has capacity for seven Bluetooth controllers, which can be used for 24 hours before they need recharging. Another bonus of PS3 is that it will come with a Blu-Ray disc drive, allowing you to watch high-definition pre-recorded movies when they become available.

The PlayStation 3 will sport a range of multimedia features, such as video chat, internet access, digital photo viewing and, of course, digital audio and video. What about all those previous generation PlayStation games you've accumulated, you ask? Never fear; Sony confirms that the machine will be backward-compatible all the way to the original. The cost is predicted to be between £173 and £230.


This amazing mobile jukebox is due out early in 2006. Nokia's N91 looks set to be in a class of its own as a multimedia mobile phone. It will play music, take photos, surf the web and download videos, store contact details and generally organise your life. The robust little phone, resplendent in its stainless steel case, is the first Nokia to be equipped with a hard drive (4Gb), which means that it can store up to 3,000 songs (or, if you're into corporate espionage, lots of sensitive documents).

The N91, which has a hi-fi quality headset and remote control, supports a wide range of digital music formats, including MP3, Real, WAV and WMA. It uses wireless technology to allow users to find and buy music from the operator's music-store. You can also drag and drop music from your PC to the N91 and manage and share playlists. Oh, and if you can find the time, you can get on the blower, too.


The Seiko Spectrum is no ordinary wristwatch. At first glance, it's an attractive and futuristic bracelet-style watch. Look closer, however, and you'll notice that its display is unlike any you've seen before.

Rather than the usual LCD screen, the display is made of "e-paper" - from the electronic paper pioneers E Ink Corp - and shows a constantly changing mosaic pattern along with the time. Because e-paper is so flexible and thin, it allows the display to curve round the wrist along with the watch band - something conventional liquid-crystal displays cannot do, as they have to be flat.

Seiko says the e-paper display not only produces far better contrast than an LCD screen, but requires no power to retain an image, so the batteries last longer. Seiko is releasing only 500 of the watches next month, priced at about £1,250 - so you'd better lose no time.


HDTV, already available in the United States, Japan and Australia, will hit the UK in 2006. When you watch a programme filmed in the HD format, you'll see a much sharper, clearer and more vibrant image. This is due partly to the way a programme is filmed, but also to the high-definition TV set itself, which uses either 720 or 1,080 visible rows of pixels (depending on which format the individual HDTV uses) to display images, compared to the 576 rows of pixels used in current sets.

The BBC, which has filmed series such as Rome and Bleak House in high definition, is set to begin trial broadcasts in 2006. The corporation wants to make HDTV available on all BBC digital platforms by 2010.

The BBC's director of television, Jana Bennett, says: "High definition may take time to grow in Britain but, as with the other technologies we helped to build, the BBC wants to prepare now to be able to deliver the benefits of HDTV to all its licence-payers in the long term."

Sky plans to show live football, Spider-Man 2 and the drama series 24 in HDTV in 2006. "We've been shooting a lot of football this year to get used to it [the new HD technology]," says James Murdoch, the chief executive of Sky, which has joined with Sony to kick off the new market in the UK for HDTV. "The detail, from the string in the nets to the individual blades of grass to the sweat beads on players' faces... It's extraordinary. I think it's a very important new product for us.''


Next time you're expecting visitors, don't bother to vacuum first - wait until they arrive, and then entertain them with this little gadget. The Electrolux Trilobite 2.0 is a robotic vacuum-cleaner that navigates its way around your floors using ultrasound, just like a bat. It pings out ultrasound vibrations at surfaces to create a map of the room, which it remembers for future cleaning assignments.

Andy Mackay, the UK brand and marketing director of Electrolux, says: "The Trilobite has no problem avoiding collision with things placed on the floor - for example, the dog's water-bowl. Special magnetic strips are placed in doorways, near stairs and other openings. These act as a wall, keeping the Trilobite in the room." You can also programme the Trilobite rather like a VCR, setting it to glide round when you're at work or after you've gone to bed.

When Electrolux introduced the original Trilobite in 2001, it was voted among the 100 most-innovative designs (though whether the judges were dedicated couch-potatoes, and thus biased, we were not able to discover). According to Electrolux, the name "comes from the hard-shelled sea creature from the Paleozoic era (between 250 million and 560 million years ago) that roamed the ocean floor feeding on particles and small animals".


Need an extra pair of hands around the office? Look no further; this month, the Honda Motor Company showcased its second-generation humanoid robot, Asimo. The machine has come a long way since its first incarnation five years ago. The 4ft-tall droid is now capable of performing a variety of office tasks, including reception duties, serving drinks and acting as an information guide, as well as making deliveries. Using multiple sensors, Asimo has the ability to recognise the surrounding environment and interact with people using integrated circuit (IC) tags. It can walk and run at a fair pace, and push a cart. Honda plans to start using Asimo's receptionist functions at its Wako Building in Japan early in 2006, and it's hoped it will become available for leasing afterwards. It could soon be pushing a cart at an office near you...

The science picks for 2006 will appear next week