Can This Rolling Camera Droid Protect Your Home?

Not unless it gets a little smarter and more lethal

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Three months ago my house was robbed. Luckily no one was home at the time—just my valuables!—but afterwards I installed an expensive home security system (and lots of “Beware of Dog” signs). Now I feel less vulnerable, even if it means I spend a big chunk of my paycheck for that feeling of security.

Omar Barlas, a software consultant who lives near me in Dallas, Texas, had a similar problem. He moved to the area and heard that his apartment complex had been broken into a few months prior. “I thought I should secure my home,” he says. He wanted full video coverage of all the rooms in his apartment, but didn’t like what he found on the market. “I went out looking for cameras, but I could not see any single solution that could work for me.”

Orbii at its docking station Orbii

Setting up multiple, stationary cameras in each room would have cost $3,000 by his estimate, and would have been complicated to install. So he came up with the idea of building his own video camera, one that was attached to a robotic ball and could freely travel from room to room like a Roomba. With that concept, a single camera could do the work of a whole house-full of commercial monitoring equipment.

His project, called Orbii, got an honorable mention at the 2016 CES Innovation Awards and has raised more than $47,000 on Indiegogo since May. As of August, Orbii is still a prototype. The current version can roll around a room and stream live video to a computer, but it is not yet smart enough or connected enough to protect a home. But Barlas will enter production in November and plans on shipping the finished Orbiis to customers in March 2017. He hopes that the more complete prototype will be available to test drive at CTIA Super Mobility conference in Las Vegas in September.

Orbii’s appearance has changed since CES, where it had a BB-8 look to it, because the camera spun wildly as the device rolled across the floor. The new version consists of a stable drive assembly, made of a low-density polycarbonate, and a clear outer shell, made of high-density polycarbonate. (Orbii’s innards stay upright now because the drive assembly is weighted at the bottom.) The final product will have a UV coating on the outside shell to resist scratching and the drive assembly will be available in different colors, which customers can customize when they order.

Inside the drive assembly is a built-in microphone, speaker and detachable HD (720p) camera. The stabilizer bracket has space for four additional attachments, which connect via USB-C ports. These add-ons could include more robust 4K cameras, atmospheric sensors or laser pointers.

Orbii connects to Wi-Fi, runs Linux, and will have its own app. Using the in-app joystick, users can steer Orbii around the home, pan and tilt the camera, control the sensors and watch the live video feed from anywhere in the world. You can also use the microphone and speaker to communicate with whatever—or whomever—you see on the other end. Is there a robber in your kitchen? Yell at him to get out!

Eventually Orbii will have room mapping so it can patrol your home autonomously, recognize common sounds and motions, and send you alerts when it detects something unusual.

“There is no other drivable camera like this on market,” Barles says. “Nest cams and Canary cams sit in one room, looking in one direction.” Those cameras are usually mounted on a wall or a shelf, giving a birds eye view of a room. Orbii will be on the ground. “If you have a lot of furnishing in the room, then it could block the view. But you could still place [Orbii] on a shelf. No one is stopping you.”

The final product will run on Lithium-ion batteries and will charge wirelessly in a charging dock. It should be able to drive continuously for an hour before needing to be recharged. Once the autonomous driving feature is enabled, Orbii will be able to drive itself back to the base when its battery is getting low.

Orbii can record up to eight hours of video and audio. It has on-board storage of 8 GB and cloud storage. “So in case the guy who came into your house decided ‘Oh this thing [Orbii] is cool, I’ll take it with me,’ the recording is still saved on the cloud,” Barlas says. “You can just look back and see who took it.”

But one of the reasons why people choose home security systems is that they deter intruders. Orbii is cute. It isn’t going to scare anyone away, no matter how much you scream through the speaker. For a paranoid person like me, who has been a victim of robbery and is already fully invested in a commercial home security system, a roving camera stream that I have to monitor myself just doesn’t make sense. Or one that a robber could just pick up and carry out. Maybe I could use Orbii to entertain my dog when I’m at the grocery store, but I prefer putting my home security in professional—not my own—hands.

Barlas has a different vision: Orbii will connect to your pre-existing home security device. And then if your security system is triggered, say a window is opened, it will alert Orbii. You will get a message through the Orbii app and Orbii will automatically travel to that location—once map points are set up—to investigate.

But if you already have a home security system, why invest in an Orbii? “This would be an add-on to your security system,” Barlas says. “You can buy the basic system, which is cheap, and rather than buying their cameras you can integrate this device with their system.”

In addition to the cost savings, Barlas believes that he will have software on his side. “This camera and our cloud software are going to be more intelligent than any other on the market,” he says. While other cameras detect any and all movements in front of the camera, Orbii will send all its video to the cloud, where it will run through Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning. Over time, this software will be able to tell the difference between movements from humans in your living room and tree branches through a window. Barlas says that unlike other security systems, Orbii will eliminate a lot of false positives.

Barlas’ current focus is the consumer market: homeowners and business owners can use it as a security device; families could check in on their loved ones; and pet owners can interact with their furry loved ones when they’re away. In the future he hopes to market it to the commercial sector, including real estate inspectors and building contractors, who could use it in tight spaces, as well as first responders and the military.

Each of these customers could customize Orbii’s materials to their own needs. First responders, for example, could get a fireproof shell and throw Orbii into burning buildings to search for survivors. Barlas sees big potential in police or military applications—Orbii could even be weaponized. “If our customer requires us to do that, we may, but as of right now we just see it as a surveillance device,” he says.

Orbii will be produced in China. Element14—the company that makes Raspberry Pi—will supply Orbii’s electronics, and the final product assembly will take place in Texas. Right now the units are available for $199 each, but the regular retail price when it ships in March will be $349 per unit.