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From Thunderbolt to Robots: Apple cast a big shadow over CES 2012

I, Robot

CES saw a number of celebrity visits from stars such as Justin Timberlake (co-owner of MySpace), Will Smith (promoting Sony's 3D films) and Kelly Clarkson (performing during the Sony keynote), before the show floor's robotics area received an enthusiastically paid celebrity endorsement visit from Justin Bieber.

Bieber appeared to handle TOSY's mRobo, a dancing robot endowed with a large speaker (below).

Nearby, a separate booth was showing off a new robotic base kit for iPhone by Xybotyx (a product which Bieber incidentally referred to as "neat" while perusing the show floor).

Slated for availability around March, the $110 device gives an iPhone mobility via wheels. Or from the opposite perspective, the iPhone gives the Xybot's wheeled base around $800 of computing power, cameras and sensors, enabling the base to deliver a sophisticated robotics device that shares its expensive core in a dual role as a smartphone.

David Shafter of Xybotyx outlined some of the features the new device, including the ability to remotely control the base from another iOS device, with support for video surveillance and even a FaceTime-like display of the operator (show below navigating the maze from an iPhone app).

Because the robotic iPhone can be controlled from anywhere via the Internet, Shafter explained it could be used to explore around at home from any remote location, or even used as a way to play hide and seek with your kids while off on a business trip.

The kit will offer third party developers tap into control of the iPhone robot via its included software or from their own apps. Shafter noted that the iPhone 4 was virtually ideal for serving as the brain of such a robot device, given its available processing power and a wide array of sensors ranging from its accelerometer and gyroscope to its digital compass and cameras.

While other smartphones now offer many of the same technical specifications and sensors, they don't support a standard port or API, making it more difficult to deliver a general purpose robot that can tightly integrate with apps to deliver a fully functional product like the dock-connector driven Xybot.

One alternative on display was the $130 Sphero, a standalone robotic ball that can be controlled via an external smartphone (including any 2009 or newer iOS 4.0 or 5.0 device or some late modeled Android phones with Bluetooth and support for one of four screen resolutions). The hard plastic ball includes color changing LEDs and incorporates an internal drive with its own guidance system including a gyro, accelerometer and compass.

Sphero doesn't take advantage of the iPhone's hardware like the Xybot can, so it offers a simpler experience and limited functionality at a higher price, but can work with a broader array of smartphone clients, specifically listing nine popular Android models. Rather than being an open ended robot it, Sphero is more of a gaming accessory that expands app-based games to control an external, interactive ball device.

Outside of the throngs of third party developers and distributors showing off their apps and accessories for Macs and iOS devices, Apple's more direct competitors were also making passive mention (intentionally or not) of the biggest and most successful tech company to ignore CES.

A followup report on Apple's peers at CES will describe how the company's overwhelming presence was felt in the reactions of the industry to the runaway success of iOS, MacBooks and initiatives such as iCloud, AirPlay and the App Store.