The Parrot Quadricopter is probably the coolest thing you can control with your iPhone, but not all of us are willing to shell out $300 for a fully equipped airborne vehicle. For the rest of us, however, a company named DeskPets has released CarBot, a much more affordable (under $30) little four-wheeled vehicle, easily controlled with a free iPhone app. The company kindly sent TUAW a unit to test, and I ran the little robot through its paces, using my iPhone 5 to control the little guy around my Los Angeles apartment.
Setup is a little overwhelming when you first get the car’s plastic packaging open, just because it seems like there are more than a few different working parts involved. But once you figure it all out, it’s actually pretty simple. The car comes all ready to go, green and translucent and packed with circuitry and gears. There’s a little adapter that plugs into the headphone slot on your iDevice (I plugged it into the bottom of my iPhone 5 and into the top of my iPad without having to even remove either one’s case). Both the adapter and the car need to be switched on (by holding down the car’s only button for a few seconds, and then flipping the switch on the adapter), and then you simply pull up the free iPhone app and you’re ready to go.
The car has four different modes. The first is the standard driving mode, where you can use onscreen controls to move the car forwards and backwards, blow an on-board (digital) horn, or turn the car left or right. There’s a small switch underneath the car with three frequency settings, so if you’re using multiple cars, you can set up each iPhone to control separate frequencies. But on the first mode, you can simply drive the car around. On my carpet floors, the car drove just fine, though not as well as on linoleum or tile, obviously.
The second mode is a multiplayer battle, for use only when you have more than one car. I didn’t get to try this mode out, but it sounds fun: You can use a “Fire” button on the iPhone to “fire” an infrared shot from the car, and hitting another car will decrease its life meter. There’s also a “Boost” button, which the manual says will give you a quick burst of speed (though given how small these cars are, that might be hard to tell). The third mode is called “obstacle detection” mode, and is designed to be used with another addon called the MazeBot, which is yet to be released and presumably will let you build a maze for the car to navigate by itself.
Finally, the last mode was almost the most interesting one for me: It’s an “Autonomous Personality Mode”, and it allows the car to navigate around by itself, free roaming around whatever environment it’s in. I had fun just watching the little car try to navigate my apartment like a roomba, but this mode is really designed to be used with the second mode, basically to give you a non-player opponent to battle against.
Unfortunately, the CarBot’s worst quality is that it’s far from accurate — not only is the car rather clumsy (though I was impressed how well it was able to navigate and move around the various environments I placed it in), but the iPhone’s touchscreen controls are completely binary, in that you’re either turning left, turning right, or not turning at all. Likewise, you either are moving forward, backward, or not moving, so if you’re looking to make precision turns or drive at a dynamic speed, you’re out of luck.
The other big issue is that the car isn’t controlled with Bluetooth — instead, the controls are passed to the car completely through an IR port on the adapter. This means that it requires line of sight to operate, so if your hand blocks the signal or the car happens to pass out of the room at any time, you’ll lose the connection. It’s definitely weird that DeskPets didn’t choose to go with Bluetooth, given how easily Apple has made using that protocol for app developers, but for whatever reason, it’s all IR, with all of the issues that entails.
Still, for $30 the CarBot seems like a great present, and it definitely does what it says on the box: Gives you a small remote-controlled car that you can drive around with your iPhone. There are some minor issues, like that choice to use IR and a generally terribly-designed app, but driving around this little car is so much fun, and the price is so easy to handle, that I ended up shrugging most of those issues off and just having a great time. If you’re putting your Christmas lists together this year already, the CarBot might be a nice addition for the iPhone user in your family.