Conyers man's robot brings. caring touch to elderly

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. GeckoSystems President Martin Spencer sits with two of his company's robots, from left, Martha and Kelly.

Staff Photos: Erin Evans. GeckoSystems President Martin Spencer sits with two of his company's robots, from left, Martha and Kelly.

Martha the robot wheels across the room, headed straight for table, but instead of colliding she makes a graceful arc around the object. Once in a while, she'll crack a bad joke with her Stephen Hawking-sounding computerized voice.

But this robot isn't about fun and games. Instead, Martin Spencer believes it can perform a very serious task -- help senior citizens live in their own homes, delaying and perhaps preventing their move to a nursing home or assisted living.

While a robot can never replace the compassion and love provided by a human being, it can give caretakers worried about their elderly relatives peace of mind, said Spencer.

"Going into a nursing home is a double-edged sword. The dull part is the money. The sharp part is the emotional toll. We don't have any choice. But that's where the rubber meets the road -- giving a family the choice of going into a nursing home or not," said Spencer.

Spencer is the president and CEO of GeckoSystems, a Conyers-based robotics company. He's been working for the past 14 years to perfect the CareBot, which has evolved into a personal computer on wheels, as Spencer describes it.

The CareBot is a plastic shell (resembling Rosie the Robot from 1960s "The Jetsons" cartoon) with computer innards powered by a battery. The robot moves on four wheels -- two about 10 inches in diameter in the front and two smaller pivoting wheels in the back. It has a computer screen for a "face" and it can "speak," providing everything from medication reminders to music. It has voice recognition and can obey commands.

It also has a remote monitoring web cam, located just above the computer screen, which records its surroundings.

The technology allows caretakers to check in on their loved ones via their computer. Conversely, senior citizens get a "companion" of sorts who can remind them when to take their medications, recite their favorite Bible verses or tell them their grandson's favorite joke.

The most important feature of CareBot, Spencer said, is that it can maneuver around obstacles, a feat, according to him, no other robotics company or university has been able to perfect.

"The ability to navigate is extremely difficult," Spencer said.

For all of its abilities, the CareBot has yet to be mass produced. Spencer said a combination of a poor economy and a lack of big investors has prevented its success on the market.

"It's been feast or famine," Spencer said.

Spencer's lab was located in his home for several years, but he now has a storefront space in the Honey Creek area. He employs one person to perform research and development and three marketing firms promote the CareBot.

While GeckoSystems is a publicly traded company and has about 1,400 investors, most of them aren't wealthy people, said Spencer. Those with greater resources hesitate to invest. They are skeptical about a product that is produced by such a small company, said Spencer.

The years in development have benefited Spencer's CareBot. It's dropped in price from about $20,000 to roughly $11,000, and it can perform more tasks than earlier versions. Spencer knows that the CareBot has to be accessible to the middle income individual if it's going to succeed on the market.

"The challenge is the cost reduction," he said.

Robots haven't always been a passion for Spencer but he took an interest in mechanical science early on. He got his first erector set at age 9 and by 15 he'd collected five sets.

"I knew what I wanted to be -- an electrical engineer," said Spencer, a native of Missouri.

Spencer attended the University of Missouri but couldn't afford tuition after three years. He enlisted in the military and served two years in the Vietnam War, as an aircraft electrician and repairman.

After his military service, Spencer sold consumer electronics for eight years before deciding to return to college. He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Georgia State University and an MBA, also from GSU, while working for a robotics company. He continued to work for robotics businesses until forming GeckoSystems in 1997.

When he first developed the company, Spencer thought he'd produce robots for household chores like vacuuming, but after market research he realized that the Baby Boomer generation, now caring for their elderly parents, should be his targeted consumer base.

As Spencer waits for investment money to further the CareBot project, he is making headway with his technology in other areas. A Roswell-based company that develops robots for the military is interested in the maneuvering capabilities of his robot, and a Japanese company expressed interest in the technology to make wheelchairs collision-proof.

Spencer said he is hopeful about the future of his company because it exists to better the lives of people.

"If an entrepreneur is doing something for the money, they burn out in two or three years. But if they're doing it for the greater good, then they tend to stay the course and quite honestly that is what has let me withstand the skepticism," Spencer said.

For more information, visit www.geckosystems.com.