Innovation

Geek Gifts 2009: WowWee Rovio Mobile Webcam

The Rovio mobile Webcam from WowWee is one of the most geek-friendly gifts we have ever reviewed -- find out why.

Want more reviews of tech gadgets and gizmos? Download the PDF of TechRepublic's Geek Gift Guide 2009.

I believe you would be hard pressed to find a reader of the TechRepublic Geekend Blog that does not have a noticeable admiration and fascination with robots and robot-like gadgets. So it is natural to assume that a robot geek gift will always be well-received.

However, when it comes to the WowWee Rovio Mobile Webcam, you not only get a robot, but a robot with video camera.

Specifications

  • Manufacturer: WowWee Group Limited
  • Connectivity: WiFi (802.11b, 802.11g), USB 2.0
  • Interface: VGA video camera, 2-way audio
  • Docking station: Recharges NiMH battery, comes with TrueTrack Beacon
  • Movement: 3 Omni-directional wheels, electric motor
  • Controls: Web-based control software accessible with an Internet connection
  • Cost: Around $300
  • For a closer look, check out the TechRepublic Photo Gallery

What I like

  • Rugged - The Rovio is well constructed and while not indestructible, it should survive normal typical use. Unlike last year's Type 90 radio-controlled battle tank, the Rovio did not break within the first five minutes of use. I navigated the rooms in my home, which vary from deep carpet to linoleum floors, without any broken parts or malfunctioning motors.
  • Wheels - The truly geeky feature of the Rovio are the wheels, which are a marvel of engineering. WowWee calls them Omni-directional and they truly are. Each of the three main wheels contains sub-wheels and rollers that allow the Rovio to spin on a dime as well as move in any direction. I would not be surprised if the wheels were copied from a design submitted as a potential system for the Mars Rover.
  • Interface - The Rovio is Web-enabled, which means that if you set it up that way, it can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet. The idea of controlling your Rovio as it moves around your home from a hotel half way across the world has definite geek appeal.
  • Communication - Because the Rovio has a Webcam and two-way audio, you can converse with anyone in the room remotely. This is really the practical appeal of the Rovio - as mobile communication device.
  • Docking - The other cool technology employed by the Rovio is what WowWee calls TrueTrack Beacon. Once you establish the docking station as home base, Rovio can dock itself on your command. The only conditions are that it has to been in the same room as the docking station and it needs to be able to see the ceiling. Rovio uses infrared sensors to triangulate the docking station coordinates - it is very cool to watch it perform this trick.

What I don't like

  • Control software - While being able to connect to your Rovio from anywhere is a great concept, the controlling software is not very polished. The icons are not intuitive and the interface feels like a beta prototype.
  • Perspective - The Rovio camera is limited to three positions: down facing ahead, midway facing ahead, up looking at a 45 degree angle. The camera itself does not rotate; to change the direction you are looking requires the entire robot to move. Since the Rovio sits so low to the ground you find yourself looking at the world from a small dog's perspective.
  • Battery life - This is not really a criticism of the Rovio itself, but is just a reality of battery technology - the Rovio will operate for approximately two hours before running so low that it wants to head for its docking station.
  • Clunky setup - Initially, the installed firmware was a version behind and I had to download an update. This was very important because the updated firmware added support for the WPA security protocol. Our Rovio shipped with support for only the less secure and much harder to work with WEP protocol. Once WPA was supported the WiFi setup became extremely easy and straightforward.
Note: To get the Rovio to work you need administrator access to the WiFi router. At the TechRepublic offices, our public wireless network requires the acceptance of a cookie to start a session and the Rovio was not able accept it and I was stymied from operating it in the office. This was a great disappointment to the tech engineers down the hall.

Geek bottom line

The Rovio Mobile Webcam is one of the most compelling fun geek gifts we have looked at since starting the franchise. It is well made and the technology of its engineering will appeal to just about any technical-minded geek on your shopping list. But keep in mind, Rovio is more of a novelty than WowWee would have you believe.

If you really want to use Webcams for practical reasons there are many, more efficient methods available. But I doubt any of the those methods will create as much geek glee as the Rovio moving from room to room carrying on a conversation with those it encounters.

Geek score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: ****
  • Geek factor: *****
  • Value: ***
  • Overall: ****

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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