Click photo to enlarge
Founder Alexandros Vardakostas, 27, (cq) demonstrate the process of the robot "Burgeon", a creation by Momentum Machines CO. that replaces hamburger line cooks in restaurants at Momentum Machines CO. at their office in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, September 06, 2012. (Josie Lepe/Staff)

They may not look exactly like their goofy, gangly ancestors on '60s TV.

But the robots have begun to arrive -- and many of them are being sired right here in the Bay Area.

"The robotics community here is pushing envelopes all over the place," said Andra Keay with Silicon Valley Robotics, which supports the innovation and commercialization of robotic technologies and has about 40 members. "You've got a whole group of smaller startups in San Francisco, while the South Bay tends to do more industrial and health care robots."

At a group networking event earlier this month, many of the Bay Area's most creative roboticists were on hand to talk shop, show off prototypes and collectively ponder a future that robots will increasingly inhabit right alongside us.

"You've got companies trying to revolutionize manufacturing with robotic arms that will do things like riveting and are able to work in close proximity to people," Keay says. "That's one of the holy grails of robotics: having robots that are safe for humans to be around."

Here are three consumer-focused Bay Area startups that were on hand for the meeting:

Bossa Nova Robotics

Their website home page says it all: "Our Mission is to develop the leading Personal Robot for the 21st-century consumer."

Or to put it more poetically, said CEO Martin Hitch as he stood nursing a beer near the front door of event host and robotics pioneer Bot & Dolly, "our robot will be the 21st-century version of Rosie on the Jetsons."


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The robot -- code-named "Project Mobi" -- is still under wraps. Hitch cryptically calls it a "location platform," suggesting a smart device of some sort attached to a mobile base, and he says it will be formally unveiled next month. But don't expect a sophisticated maid right off the bat, Hitch says. "To get a robot to say to you 'Here's that beer you wanted' won't happen anytime soon.

"We're talking about the robotic extension of your iPhone, with the robot giving you information like the weather," he says. But "instead of looking down at your phone, you'll be interacting with the robot, through gestures and voice recognition." He says Mobi will eventually be able to serve as your personal docent at an art museum, talking about the artwork and "even using 3-D vision to avoid a crowded space."

The Robot App Store

Robots need apps, too. And in the year since Israeli-born Elad Inbar, 38, launched the online store and moved his operation to the Bay Area, this self-styled "first marketplace for robot apps" has quickly grown to feature software from 150 developers around the world. Some 10,000 users have already downloaded about 600 different apps, many of them designed to work with specific robots already in the marketplace. For example, he says there are apps that teach Roomba, the vacuum-cleaning assistant from iRobot, "to dance and sing songs like 'Happy Birthday' while it vacuums."

Inbar says there are apps that can teach a robot to read your emails out loud and then send a reply email on your behalf. You can download apps that let you steer remote-control robotic devices while you record video from them on your smartphone. And there are plenty of other apps to bring robotic toys like the French-made Nao to life, including "Nao Emotions Collection! -- Disappointed Behavior!"

You guessed it. This app enables your programmable humanoid friend to display "disappointed movement and sound" in case "the user gave a wrong answer, or did something wrong."

Momentum Machines

How dare you to want fries with that!

Momentum, the brainchild of Alexandros Vardakostas, is hard at a work on a sort of robotic Rube Goldberg device that he hopes will change the face of the American burger joint, one patty at a time. A prototype of "The Burgeon" sits in a warehouse in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. But Vardakostas is quick to give props to Silicon Valley, "which has been disrupting all kinds of industries for years now. We want to do that with fast food."

Vardakostas, a 27-year-old physics graduate from UC Santa Barbara, says the Burgeon can crank out a burger every 16 seconds. It grinds the meat, stamps out the patty, sends it along a conveyor-belt grill, toasts the buns, squirts on the condiments, slices and drops in pickles and tomatoes and lettuce, then pops the finished burger into a bag, all in under five minutes.

And, says Vardakostas, "we're trying to bring it down to a completed burger every 10 seconds."

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.