But what about that conical, sphere-headed robot in the foreground? I remembered that one—that it was called something like "Klaatu", despite the fact that Klaatu was the guy and Gort (or Gnut) was the robot—and remembered vaguely that it turned out to be a media hoax. Matt of Paleo-Future says he's got a bunch of newspaper articles ready to scan. I can't wait, but in the meantime, I looked up everything I could.
This was the "Quasar Industries" robot hoax of 1977-78. In the wake of Star Wars, people were crazy for robots, and Anthony Reichelt of Quasar Industries said they could have a robot capable of doing household chores Real Soon Now.
Sometimes it was called "Klatu"—this page cites a wonderfully bogus explanation for the name, from another 1978 kids' book called "Robots Robots Robots":
its name we’re told was bestowed on it as a result of an error in its voice-recognition system. until the error was rectified, the robot repeated “klatu” - the phonetic reversal of “you talk” which were the first words addressed to it.”Of course, its "voice recognition" module was really the guy behind the curtain mumbling into a hidden microphone; the robot was at best a remote-controlled shell, at worst a person in a robot suit. (They may not have actually done any man-in-suit demos—the exhibited models were usually remote-controlled rolling automata with nonfunctional arms but motorized shoulder joints, controlled wirelessly by two people, one doing the voice—but the design suggests to me that putting a person in the shell was at least considered!)
The comments for that page have some choice reminiscences from people claiming to be associated with Reichelt: "max" calls Reichelt a "lovable con-man" and says there were several robot bodies, made partly of fiberglass built at a local Corvette shop.
It sometimes seems to have been exhibited under the odd name of "Sam Strugglegear". Under that name, at a department-store demo in late 1977, it was investigated by some roboticists with ARPANET access who soon realized that something was up (that's converted from an old mailing-list archive; search for "Strugglegear" and "Klatu" to get to the goodies). The episode eventually led to some people getting nervous about Quasar somehow retaliating against people badmouthing them on the government's ARPANET, and the whole thing became an early milestone in the discussion of free speech and defamation on computer networks.
Contrary to what some people have said, I don't think Reichelt was a rogue employee of the Quasar that sold consumer electronics; that is and was just a trademark of Matsushita Electric (along with Panasonic, JVC, and many others), and this feels too penny-ante for them—they'd have been concentrating on importing Japanese TVs at this point. Nor is this Quasar related to any currently existing company called Quasar—there's a Quasar Industries in Michigan that could have built his robot dummies, but it's always been a Detroit-area firm, not New Jersey.
No, this was just a classic case of a fraudulent start-up looking for gullible investors. But Reichelt surely benefited from association with the well-known brand.
Update: So... I click on that headshot of Klatu on the Nonist page, and what should come up but a full frontal view with "PANASONIC" in huge letters down the front of the robot!! So was this Matsushita Electric after all? If so, why was this guy seeking outside investors? Maybe he was a Matsushita USA employee gone haywire! Or maybe the robot was just shilling for Panasonic at a trade show. Wheels within wheels...