Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Personal Robotics Revolution - What's Holding Us Back?

In a thoughtful piece on the upcoming personal robotics revolution, author Clem Chambers in a new Forbes article hypothesizes that the brakes on the revolution are the current inability of robot tinkerers to get at the brains of their robots easily. I enjoyed the article and agree with this sentiment, but wanted to point out another pair of conditions that once satisfied, will be the starting gun for the revolution.

What's Holding Us Back? - PC Control And A Common Base Of Standards

Clem indicates that the trigger for the revolution would come in the form of open access to the brains of the robots. That is indeed one solid path. But there is another equal if more potent path. That path is delineated by the stock integration of the necessary transmitter/receiver hardware to communicate with a personal computer. Combine that with a standardized protocol for robot to PC communication and now you can offload many interesting processing tasks to the owner's personal computer; tasks such as advanced object recognition through CPU hungry vision, sound, and other sensor data analysis. Or tasks like robot character personality evolution and adaptation. This is the direction companies like Hanson Robotics are taking with their upcoming character robot Zeno. Virtually every home that has a personal robot has a personal computer connected to the Internet, and it is much easier to upgrade your personal computer than for the robot manufacturer to reconfigure and upgrade the robot's hardware. The problem is now that the command transmission method for almost all consumer robots is the vastly cheaper infrared medium instead of a more expensive WiFi connection. This makes it difficult to have the robot roam free in the home while communicating with the home computer since infrared is "line-of-sight" technology. Two currently unreleased robots that will have WiFi bridges are the WowWee Rovio robot and the Meccano Spykee robot and it's siblings.

Once WiFi is the standard then standard protocols like TCP and UDP and even higher level web standards can be utilized. However, a common standard for most of the core underlying command and data transfer operations, required to control the robot remotely and receive sensor data from it, is still necessary for things to truly take off from here. Think of the effect that Microsoft's competition crushing operating system Windows had. On one hand, many of my fondest software companies were eliminated, but on the other hand it did force standards on all the developers that rapidly advanced the state of application development for personal computers.

With the appearance of true WiFi and a solid application development base of protocols to work with, both home users, with the aid of sophisticated software interfaces, and developers alike will be able to create cool applications that currently have to be kludged together right now. I say this from experience because two of my most popular consumer robot "wonder kludges" involve a software program I wrote called Robodance which runs on Windows PC's. Robodance allows WowWee and Tomy/Takara (i-SOBOT) robot owners to control their robots via voice commands, including the ability to control them remotely via Skype's video call service. They can also build scripts with a drag and drop editor and share them with others. Finally, they can control their robots with the Nintendo Wii Remote control's. In fact, i-SOBOT owners can use arm gestures to control their robot's courtesy of the WiiMote's motion sensors. I've included some reference links below so you can see demonstrations of the technologies involved. The point is that software running on a PC can greatly expand the capability of a consumer robot without the need to modify the robot itself.

But until WiFi is stock on personal robots, including a stock video camera and microphone, and a standard is made for PC to robot communications, programs like my Robodance will be hard to find and difficult to create. But once those two industry conditions are satisfied, Robodance, will become part of a wave of PC based robot control programs. Remember, with WiFi all the home user needs to complete the bridge is an everyday wireless access point as part of their home WiFi network. At this point the PC-to-robot link will be invisible to them. The robot will simply appear smarter and more capable, and *most* importantly, it will continue to evolve in features and intelligence over time without any intervention required by the home user. This will be facilitated by frequent software downloads from software companies that will offer "robot intelligence maintenance" subscriptions (think of the way you get browser, operating system, and other updates transparently in the background on your personal computer). There will also be deluxe web servers that will combine learning across user's robots in real time and deliver advanced intelligence improvements by communicating directly with your home computer; no downloads required! Once we reach this stage it will be breathtaking to see the personal robotics industry take off in an explosive manner.


VIDEO: Turning a WowWee Roboquad robot into a remote spy using Robodance and Skype's video call service.

VIDEO: Controlling an i-SOBOT using the Nintendo Wii Remote Control (WiiMote).

SOFTWARE: Robodance, free software program for Microsoft Windows PC's (Winner of the coveted "Project Of The Month" award for May 2005):

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