Tuesday, February 26, 2013

2013 Robotic Gimmicks, Gadgets and Toys

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Toys often precede more serious inventions. So, putting judgement aside, and withholding laughs and other "tells", here are some new robotic toys and gadgets hitting the market this year.

Takara Tomy is introducing AutoMee, a $20 smartphone and tablet-cleaning robot, to the Japanese market in March. AutoMee doesn't show up on Takara Tomy's English website but is prominently featured on the main (Japanese) site. Recognizing edges, AutoMee just keeps spinning and rotating around the surface and has a lens-cleaning paper on it's underside to enable cleaning.


WowWee demonstrated it's newest robot RoboMe at the 2013 Toy Fair in anticipation of 2013 holiday sales. RoboMe can work in two modes: you can remove the faceplate and replace it with your iPhone or iPod Touch, download, install and initiate an app, and, using graphics, voice and vision, remotely control their RoboMe. It can also operate with a remote control device and the faceplate but without the Siri-like personality.


Grillbot is exhibiting at recent housewares, BBQ and foodservice trade shows with their new grill cleaning Grillbots. Using three powerful servos driving three replaceable bristle brushes, the Grillbot can navigate all over the grill scrubbing as it goes and regulating it's speed and direction. Grillbots will be available early summer for $70. An upgraded model will retail for $100.

Desk Pets has added Tankbots to their line of inexpensive robotic-like toys. The $30 Tankbot can navigate mazes, avoid obstacles and be remotely controlled with a smartphone or tablet.

Romotive, the Las Vegas start-up that did so well with their Romo robot, has updated Romo to be far more stylish and faster than the previous model. The new Romo will sell for $149 and start shipping in June.

SmartLab Toys has release ReCon 6, a programmable rover selling for $70. It can be programmed to fetch items and speak recorded messages. It's intended to be an instructional device for kids to learn programming.


The ultimate learning device, of course, is the Lego Mindstorms EV3 (Evolution 3) which will be released this summer for $434. Kids can build, program and test their programmable robots using motors, sensors, gears, wheels and axles.


Finally, Sphero is releasing an augmented reality application to enhance the experience of making the Sphero ball move from place to place. Instead of the ball being a ball, it comes to life as a beaver named Sharky with virtual toys and other innovations. The ball costs $130 and the app is free.

Note: This is not a complete list of the toys and gadgets that will hit the market this year, but it is a selection that came across my desk and which shows the breath of that which will soon be available for purchase. If you know of other robotic toys and gadgets, please send them my way. Thanks.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Willow Garage Changes Direction


By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

    For many years now Willow Garage has invested in open source and open platform robotics. Their goal has been a reflection of the vision of it's founder (and chief funder) to advance the state of robotic technology in autonomous devices.

    And advance the state of robotics it certainly did!
    • ROS (Robot Operating System) and ROS-enabled software packages and libraries can be found in most universities and research labs.
    • The 50 PR2 research robots and development platforms around the world and at Willow Garage's offices in Menlo Park have enabled countless roboticists and research labs to spend their time innovating instead of having to re-invent.
    • The spin-offs abound as well: TurtleBot, OpenCV, Galapagos, ROS and ROS-Industrial, Suitable Technologies' Beam Remote Presence System, HiDOF consulting, the detection and perception leading to the establishment of Industrial Perception, are all indicators of WG's policy of spinning out entities with a sustaining business plan.
    • And the joint ventures: Redwood Robotics, a promising competitor in the collaborative cage-free robot field.
    Today WG announced that they are changing direction and deciding to focus on additional commercial opportunities with an eye to becoming self-supporting. The generous funding from Scott Hassan will stop within three months, and WG employees have been notified. Late last year the writing was on the wall when Scott Hassan announced that he was to be the CEO at WG spin-off Suitable Technologies.

    The PR2s around the world will continue to be supported and the recent establishment of non-profit organizations will continue the open source platform and libraries.

    What can we expect from Willow Garage in the future? One can only imagine. Personally, after seeing Industrial Perception's robot unload the back of a truck, understanding the complexity of what appeared to be a seamless process made simple by IPI, I foresee other products along the line of "see", "sense", "process", and "act" done using ROS, tested on PR2s and rolled out commercially with the new credo of "fast and seamless".

    Sunday, February 3, 2013

    Robots on TV

    Verizon and GE have produced television advertisements that include robots. The ads are playing frequently and nationally. They are good, they're being talked about and tweeted, audiences like them, and they are great promotional pieces for the robotics industry. The ads are indicative of PR and advertising agencies' growing awareness that people are becoming at ease with robots in their everyday life, hence the inclusion in their advertisements.

    Click image to see video.
    Click image to see video.
    Verizon uses a series of four ads to show how employing their network breaks the barriers of distance. Entitled "Technology That Breaks Boundaries," Verizon shows how their advanced tools are able to push large amounts of streaming data through their network. Two of those ads include VGo Communications' VGo mobile telepresence robots. One ad shows how kids far away from the ocean participated in a field trip to an ocean aquarium; the other ad shows a young home-bound student remotely attending and participating in a class. Both ads are informative, inspiring and memorable. 

    VGo Communications is partners with Verizon and integrates Verizon's 4G LTE technology into their VGo robot.

    Click image to see video.
    GE is using their ads to look at the bigger picture occurring in industry today: managing and analyzing huge streams of digital data in a search for quality, productivity and effectiveness. Their corporate philosophy of the Power of 1 is a predicate for the ads: by productivity increases or energy savings of just 1%, enormous industrial savings can happen: 1% fuel savings in aviation could save $30 billion over 15 years; 1% productivity improvement in healthcare equates to $63 billion in savings over the same period. They developed a series of ads on digital workflow to show how these productivity enhancements can occur: with brilliant machines and creative data management and data mining. Two of the ads in the series include robots. The ad shown above is the most interesting.

    Click image to see video.
    Many robotics industry professionals who saw the January CBS News 60 Minutes segment about robots were disappointed in the piece because it appeared to say that robots took away jobs while also showing some of the most impressive new robotic technologies at work (and described in terms of displacing jobs). Just like they teach in Public Relations 101, you measure publicity by the pound (implying that there's no such thing as bad press). That could be true in this case: lots of people were talking about the show - but they were also seriously thinking and talking about a different and very sensitive subject in America: an assumption that productivity enhancements takes away jobs. 

    The advertisements by GE and Verizon, on the other hand, are positive, favorable, and stimulate the public's imagination about the value of robots and robotics in everyday life. Perhaps they can help cleanse the bitter taste left from the 60 Minutes show.

    Less serious but indicative of the prevalence of robots on TV is a recent Daily Show with Jon Stewart segment ridiculing an excerpt from the CBS 60 Minutes segment above:
    Click on image to see video.