The Garret Tree
Sunday, January 25, 2009
  You can be replaced—by a Meccano set
You can be replaced—by a Meccano set. The 2009 version of that Meccano set (Erector set in the US) you got under the Christmas tree as a kid.

Professional photographers are, to use the football term, hearing footsteps from the citizen journalists, fearing their jobs are threatened by “user generated content.”

Now there’s a new threat, the whine of the servos and motors of a robot.

On Saturday Jan. 24, I went to shoot a yearly assignment, the Canadian Toy Association's Toy & Hobby Fair at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

I always wonder through the corridors between the booths and the big displays first at the trade show to look for the best toys to create a photo gallery. Not necessarily the hot toys of the year, but the ones that will be best for the gallery.

Almost as soon as I arrived there it was, a small almost insectoid robot making its way slowly but surely across a deep pile carpet.

I dropped to my knees, raised by camera and click,




Then the salesperson controlling the little ‘bot motioned me over to the counter where he was working a laptop.

Turned out the robot was shooting me as I was shooting the robot.

It’s the Spykee Spy Robot from the French arm of Meccano, a robot that has its own website at (Both Meccano and the U.S. Erector firms are now owned by the same company).

I was at a toy show, where I was tracked by a robot that can record audio and video.

I was recorded by a Meccano set! When I was a little kid, I got a Meccano set under the tree, girders and big screws that might make something that somewhat resembled an oil rig or a small girder bridge.

The control panel.

The Spykee Spy Robot can be controlled from anywhere on the planet (and possibly beyond) using internet WiFi connections.

The video quality wasn’t that good.

My immediate thought was wait six months and it will get better.

Then I realized, it’s a Meccano set. Someone with enough technical skill could probably convert it into a broadcast quality video and audio or print quality 200-300 dpi still image newsbot.

I left the show with the instructions for building the robot kit.

According to the website, the Spykee can also carry its own Ipod. So even if it’s a robot, it can ignore you just like humans do when they are in the world created by their Ipod.

A child can do it. Meccano says it's for ages 8 and up.

You can set up your laptop at a WiFi hotspot and control the bot. The Spykee website shows someone controlling a robot in Paris from New York.

There goes the Paris bureau. You can be replaced—by a Meccano set

Yes, you can imagine the beancounters sending in robots so they won’t have to pay salaries (just a little maintenance).

Newsbots have been a staple of science fiction since the 1940s. I remember stories of paparazzi robots chasing their targets, showing live video or sending pix back to an office.

A future Rover on Mars. (NASA/CalTech)

NASA has already created robots that are on Mars at the moment, sending back high quality images and robots that will head to the Red Planet will have even better images.

Three generations of Mars rovers. (NASA/CalTech)

Military forces in the developed world are planning combat robots. The Predators and other drones are in action over Afghanistan and Iraq. Iin Gaza, those reporters who were there often told of the constant noise of Israeli drones flying over Gaza.

With the Israelis blocking human journalists from getting into Gaza, why not send in the robots? Of course, combatants in a war zone would likely try to destroy the newsbots. And the newsbot would have to have a satellite link since all the WiFi cafes would be rubble. On the other hand, newsbots are relatively cheap and getting cheaper. So news organizations could send the robots into dangerous situations where humans might not want to go, heavy combat, forest fires, natural disasters.

It comes down to how the robots are managed, doesn’t it?

Here"s anoher look at the robocam image. Just for fun I converted it to black and white in PhotoShop and then applied the G-Force filter that is said to emulate Tri-X film. Not much difference between the robocom image and a picture taken with a very cheap camera loaded with good old Tri-X. And as I said, wait six months.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

New blogs as of Sept. 2009
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