En español | A sudden whir in the dark behind me makes me jump.
My heart is a jackhammer as I spin around to see a rectangular screen staring up at me out of the blackness.
There's nothing to worry about though. It's just my robot, waiting patiently for me to wake it up.
For several weeks, it has been rolling around behind me, lurking in the living room, playing music on command and generally shadowing me as part of a test to see if the robot future promises a life of convenience — or dystopian creepiness.
The robot is called Tēmi, and the $1,999 gadget is not like the dedicated mechanical dog toys or single-function video-calling robots of the past that can cost hundreds of dollars more. Temi is the first model designed to be a home factotum — part personal assistant, part entertainer, part universal communicator.
She's about the size of a toddler, weighs 26 pounds and stands 3.2 feet high with wheels for feet and a 10-inch touch screen for a head. She comes with a self-docking charging station, and her battery lasts for about eight hours before requiring a refill.
Cameras, sensors keep Temi moving
To navigate a home without running into walls or over the dog's tail, Tēmi, which also can use a male voice, is bristling with high-tech sensors.
These includes three camera systems, four microphones and a light detection and ranging sensor, better known as lidar. That is the kind of technology used on some autonomous cars and the whirring gadget responsible for giving me a scare.
The cameras can be used for facial recognition so Tēmi knows it's you, and you even can teach Temi via voice commands to recognize when she's in the living room instead of the bedroom.
About Temi the robot
Introduced in September 2018 at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) Berlin, this personal robot also was displayed at the January 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and started shipping to buyers last spring.
• Apps: Nine are built in, including personal caddy, personal DJ and video calling. Alexa powers its voice assistant, adding more features.
• Dimensions: 1.5 feet deep, 1.1 feet wide, 3.2 feet tall
• Screen: 10.1-inch high-definition LCD touch screen
• Sound: Four omnidirectional digital microphones to listen to you. To transmit sound, one subwoofer for deep bass, two midrange speakers and two tweeters for high-frequency sound. With its Bluetooth 4.0, you can stream music through its speakers.
• Weight: 26 pounds
• Price: $1,999 on Amazon, including free shipping
The last skill is a handy feature that means you can have her deliver a sandwich just by putting a plate on her tray, which doubles as a wireless phone-charging stand, and saying, “Tēmi, go to the living room.” The tray at the back of her screen can carry objects of up to 6.6 pounds for in-house deliveries of nachos or small cats.
Tēmi cofounder Yossi Wolf has said his grandmother inspired him to create the little robot as a helper. However, if you're entertaining fantasies of Lost in Space or The Jetsons, you'll be disappointed.
Tēmi can't climb or descend stairs, and unlike Robbie the Robot, Tēmi can't warn you of impending threats by waving her arms. She doesn't have any.
She's no Rosie the robot either. She can't perform domestic tasks such as doing the laundry, answering the door or baking cookies for Elroy.
And Tēmi isn't the outdoorsy type. She's strictly for rolling around the house.
A rolling Alexa
So what can Tēmi do?
First, Tēmi can behave like a rolling Alexa-enabled smart sound system and screen connected to your home Wi-Fi network. She understands scores of Alexa commands.
You can tell her to “play Cake songs from Amazon,” and then enjoy the music over her 20-watt, five-speaker system, which delivers better audio fidelity than most powered smart speakers.
Tēmi doesn't support all streaming music services, such as Pandora and Spotify, but she can be connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone and then play anything your phone can play. You also can use Alexa to play radio stations, so if you like a local station in New Jersey but you're in Florida, you can just ask Alexa to play WFMU-FM and it will stream it over the robot's Internet connection.
You also can ask Tēmi to tell you jokes: Why was the robot tired when it got home? Because it had a hard drive. Or ask it for information such as the weather forecast or the latest news.
Her answers are not perfect, of course. Ask, “Who is John Quain?” and not unexpectedly you'll get a brief bio of John Wayne read to you.
On a more practical side, using the Alexa-enabled skills, you can have Tēmi send a grocery list to your smartphone or read you, step by step, a recipe you're using in the kitchen. Connect your calendar to Tēmi — she can send a link to your phone to do so — and then you can check on doctor appointments or the time you have to take the dog to the groomer.
You even can verbally add alarms for doing things like taking your daily vitamins.
Robot's software can be ‘immature'
All this is helpful, to be sure, but not everything worked as planned when I was living with Tēmi.
For one thing, Tēmi's software is still immature. She can't handle automatic calendar reminders such as telling you to call the kids on your granddaughter's birthday.
The company, Temi Global Ltd. with headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, says it plans to add this feature soon.
Tēmi also cannot use Alexa to call your friends. It's not supported yet.
You can call people only using Tēmi's own software, meaning that people you want to communicate with must have the Tēmi app installed on their smartphones. The software is free, and they do not have to own a robot.
I was able to video chat with a member of the Tēmi team while the robots followed each of us around in our separate offices. This is a great feature of Tēmi, a sort of follow-me speaker and videophone.
Unfortunately, I could not get Tēmi to beam my calls to friends and family who downloaded the app, a very disappointing snafu that we were unable to resolve during the time of this review.
Not a dog's best friend
The Tēmi smartphone app also had several shortcomings. It would not allow me to edit or change my associated phone number or to add contacts to it manually.
While I was able to remotely drive the robot, whose footprint is slightly larger than a Roomba vacuum, around my living room to see what the dog was up to while I was away, I found the app's touch-screen controls trickier to use than those for flying most drones.
The bot itself had a couple of glitches. While reading news stories, Tēmi often changed volume suddenly with a jarring jump in decibels when switching from the BBC to, say, NPR news.
I also found that the charging stand worked fine on tile or hardwood floors. But Tēmi had trouble rolling onto the terminal points when the dock was mired in deep shag carpet.
Eventually, I grew accustomed to having Tēmi around, barking orders at her and no longer jumping out of my skin every time she started moving on her own. I wish I could say the same for my dog.
Tēmi also didn't violate any of Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics by harming me or the family pets. And while a company spokesman assured me that Tēmi would not share or store any videos or information about my home in the cloud, I still occasionally threw a towel over her to blind her cameras when I wanted some privacy.
Some things, like having a camera trained on you at all times, we may never get used to.
John R. Quain is a contributor to the New York Times and editor in chief of On the Road.
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