Thursday, May 6, 2010

Willow Garage's Noble Open Source Effort - Plus Telepresence Robots

Is Jorge Cham's cartoon true?  Do typical robotics grad students really spend 70% of their time re-inventing the wheel? If so, wouldn't you think that Willow Garage's open source effort to provide a robotics operating system (ROS) would be welcomed worldwide?  And the resulting tools for sharing and testing cause an accelerating boom in robotics development?  I certainly hope so but the evidence seems contrary.

Willow Garage is definitely doing their part.  They are developing and offering capable robotic operating systems and simulation architecture that is open and available to all.  In fact, they have just awarded 11 Willow Garage robots (PR2s) with the accompanying ROS operating system to research labs around the world.

  1. University of Freiburg (Germany)
  2. Bosch (worldwide manufacturer of electronics and sensors)
  3. Georgia Tech (USA)
  4. Katholieke University Leuven (Belgium)
  5. MIT (USA)
  6. Stanford (USA)
  7. Technical University of Munich (Germany)
  8. UC Berkeley (USA)
  9. University of Pennsylvania (USA)
  10. USC (USA)
  11. University of Tokyo JSK Lab (Japan)
Scott Hassan, founder of Willow Garage (and of Google fame), is backing his vision to push the frontiers of robotics, both scientifically and commercially, with money and manpower, toward a world of standards -- to thwart the re-inventing process by providing tools for sharing and building on each other's work.  His crew of talented roboticists is committed to open source robotics software, and can be seen at various trade shows and conferences around the world promoting that vision... attempting to make ROS the new Linix of robotics.  Yet there were only 73 applicants for the 11 free robots.  Why not 730?  Or more?
Who knows what might happen in a few years if this catches on and ROS emerges as a "de facto" open source robotics system like Linux emerged for computers? says Erico Guizzo, Associate Editor of IEEE's Spectrum.
Certainly there is a need to standardize.  The Robotics Industries Association just reported that first quarter 2010 sales were $208 million.  That revenue represents just 3,069 robots - at $67,775 per robot - not mentioning the other costs for programming, integration, safety, etc. which often approximate three times the cost of the robot.  That brings the total to almost a quarter million dollars! With standardization and modularity, costs could plunge - and then quantities, revenues and application areas would really blossom.  Actually, costs MUST plunge for there to be a revolution in robotics.

Yet every day or so we receive an announcement of another personal robot built from scratch with proprietary software and systems.

The real question appears to be: why isn't Willow Garages' effort transforming the robotics world?  Are there really better transformational operating systems and platforms out there?  What are they?  Where are they?  What makes them better?  Or, are there other more prosaic reasons, and if so, what are they?

Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage, responded to these questions, by email from ICRA, the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Alaska:
Many robotics suppliers, from Segway (which makes a widely-used robot base) to Barrett Technologies (which makes the WAM arm) have announced support for ROS on their platforms.

Many robotics software players have decided to open source code and make it compatible with ROS.  Examples include SRI, which sells Karto but recently made the core of it open source and integrated with ROS, and URBI, which has recently open sourced its scripting language and is integrating it with ROS.

ICRA was the debut of the PR2.  It is robust (it's cutting-edge demonstrations ran constantly for the full 3 days of the show) and capable.  It is going to change the way robotics software development is done over the next few years.

I challenge you to find another robotics company that's had this kind of impact in its first three years.  I'm extremely proud of our team and our performance this far, and am looking forward to continuing to have this kind of impact over the next three years and beyond.

An Aside About Telepresence Robots

Willow Garage recently produced 25 telepresence robots.  These have not yet been given away or put to use - but they have a name: Texas; or, as a group, Texai. Some of them are planned for use in human-robot interaction research; others at various sites and companies to study the mobility, networking and social challenges that must be addressed in the design of robot telepresence platforms.

The Kiplinger Report includes telepresence robots as one of eight areas of robotics that will affect your life in the near future.

Certainly telepresence robots are having an effect in healthcare. Giraff Technologies AB and InTouch Health have made particular inroads.  InTouch Health says that they presently have telepresence robots in 300 hospitals and are performing over 10,000 remote presence sessions per quarter.

Other application areas for telepresence robots include their use as couriers, security guards, guides, receptionists, etc.

Venture money is flowing into telepresence robotics.  As an example, InTouch Health just received $10 million in two separate private placement fundings.

Anybots, a competitor in the telepresence marketplace, has just announce their pricing and delivery dates for their first commercial entry: this fall at $15,000. Comments range from curiosity to skepticism.
$15k? They must be kidding. A battery, a couple of motors & wheels on the bottom, netbook innards on top running Skype and a bit of custom code to drive it remotely and you are all set. $1500 might be more like it. Mine wont be that cute however, I guess that's what the other $13,500 pays for.

Willow Garage counters those comments by claiming that the freedom to control the experience of who and what they are looking at, and how they can engage the participants, provides a superior communication experience than the talking heads of iChat, Skype and other similar video arrangements.

Not to be outdone, at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 which started last month in Shanghai, 37 Hai Bao robots developed by Zhejiang University, roam the crowds to interact with visitors and costumed performers.  Multiple Hai Bao telepresence robots lead tours together, perform ceremonies and dances, tell jokes, shake hands, greet people in six languages and even help guests take and display photos.

Willow Garages timely experimentation in this dynamic new area of robotics may be fortuitous for all concerned.