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Open-source personal robotics seeks a community to make it affordable [video]

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robot,open source,Willow GarageUntil someone develops a common platform for building robots (think of the combination of Windows and Intel that has made PCs so accessible), the technology will remain elusive to the general public. At least that’s the contention of Willow Garage, Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif. company that Wednesday made its PR2 personal robot available to the public.

PR2 comes with the basics: a mobile base, two arms for manipulation, a suite of sensors and two computers, each with eight processing cores, 24 gigabytes of RAM and two terabytes of hard disk . Willow Garage is hoping that its robot will blossom with the help of an open community of devoted engineers and software developers that can build on the PR2′s basics and share their breakthroughs with each other. Call it open source for robots.

The field of robotics needs to become more standardized if it is to flourish, says Keenan Wyrobek, co-director of Willow Garage’s Personal Robotics Program. "PR2 is all about taking us from where we are today to where you can pretty much make your own robot as needed," he says.

The PR2 comes with a robot operating system (ROS), which handles the robot’s computation and hardware manipulation functions, to name a few. The ROS, like open-source software, is free and can be tweaked by users, as long as any improvements are shared back with the rest of the community of PR2 and ROS users. This community is key to the PR2′s success because it opens up the project to ideas and input from engineers around the world who know how to write programs for robotics navigation, vision, movement and other functions.robot,open source, Willow Garage

In terms of hardware, the PR2 is less open-source and more modular, with arms, grippers, sensors and other interchangeable parts that can be improved upon by the robots’ users. Wyrobek hopes that an independent industry will form to develop hardware improvements and extensions to the PR2, much the way companies sell software and peripherals for PCs.

Through the ongoing creation of standardized components, this community is expected also to play a role in lowering the PR2′s $400,000 price tag over time. A parallel would be the way PC makers were able to dramatically lower prices by standardizing on the so-called "Wintel" platform, which is the Microsoft Windows operating system running on computer powered by Intel processors. In the meantime, Willow Garage is offering discounted PR2s (at $280,000) to people who have made significant contributions to the open source community by writing and releasing code and other resources. "When evaluating an application, we will look at the code you have made available in a public repository, as well as accompanying documentation and tutorials," according to the company’s Web site. "We will also look to see if other people are using your code. Finally, we will consider your ability to release as open source the code you would produce with the PR2." There is no cap on the number of discounted PR2s the company will offer.

robot,open source, Willow GarageWillow Garage probed the market in advance of its official launch with a beta-testing program, through which the company distributed 11 robots to teams of engineers willing to experiment with the robot’s basic functions. It was the beginning of a community that Wyrobek hopes will exchange ideas for improving the technology with each other and with his company. "It’s sort of greasing the wheels," he admits. PR2 owners contribute the ideas and applications to ROS.org, a Web site dedicated to the robot’s budding community.

One beta tester, Georgia Tech in Atlanta, is tweaking the personal robot so that it can help senior citizens. The school’s Healthcare Robotics Lab is developing software for PR2s named Cody and EL-E so that they can open doors and drawers and flip light switches guided by a laser pointer, radio signals or touch.

The Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., part of electronics and appliances maker The Bosch Group, has begun a two-year project to integrate its advanced sensor technology—including micro electro-mechanical system (MEMS) accelerometers, gyros and force sensors, and air pressure sensors—to improve the PR2′s performance and reliability. Other beta testing sites include Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

See video of an early application for which the PR2 proved to be a good fit:

 

Images and video of PR2 courtesy of Willow Garage





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 12:00 pm 09/8/2010

    It was actually IBM that standardized the PC platform, anointing Intel and Microsoft as the component providers.

    Once the IBM PC gained a critical mass of market share, the specifications of their product became the de facto standard, allowing many (start-up) companies to produce a compatible product (at a lower price).

    Intel had certainly done their own critical processor development, but Microsoft actually got the operating system contract before they had a product. Microsoft had the software market delivered to them on a platter – they scooped up the rest of it as it was independently developed.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Andira 8:07 pm 09/8/2010

    And Windows was developed, as everybody should know, as a licensed copy of the Lisa-MacIntosh OS. In addition the whole thing did not catch on until the prices went down and computers were targeted less at programmers and more at the consumer. The consumer wants not a robot like this, however attractive it seems to me, but an easy to use product that has multiple applications without a need for programming. But, sure, the project is a major step forward.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 9:12 pm 09/8/2010

    Andira – probably everybody doesn’t now know the actual history of the PC, for example that MacIntosh OS graphical user interface was (ironically) an unauthorized adaptation of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center products.

    So, coming full circle, the Xerox folks in Palo Alto designed user friendly interfaces (including the invention of the mouse and local area networking) but never were able to sell many of their expensive products.

    They also didn’t have any independent software developers producing applications, which was also an early problem for the Mac and Windows. It seems people wanted to buy finished generally useful software applications like spreadsheets and word processors before the bought their new computer.

    I agree that most potential customers will not be interested in a personal robot for even a few thousand dollars until there are completed applications available and probably even an easy to use general purpose training facility.

    Of course, all parties require a potential market prior to investments in product development. The breakthrough in the development of the PC was that IBM committed to the mass production of PCs as an entrepreneurial venture, kick-starting the low cost PC market.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Wayne Williamson 7:24 pm 09/9/2010

    cool article and i want one….but at that price i would have to be a multimillionaire…..
    when it gets down to the 10k range let me know (hopefully with moores law that won’t be to many more years)….

    jtdwyer…so true…

    my thoughts are that IBM screwed up in two areas…the microchannel architecture(closed) and not giving away the development kit with OS2…OS2 was far superior to windows nt 3.5(and even 4.0)

    Link to this
  5. 5. Chryses 6:11 am 09/10/2010

    One can but hope that the development of robotics will now be as rapid as that of the personal computer.

    Link to this
  6. 6. jtdwyer 11:30 am 09/10/2010

    Wayne Williamson – Good points – the microchannel was a useful improvement, but doomed by IBM’s proprietary control. Later bus developments made it irrelevant.

    OS/2 was superior to Windows 2,0, Windows 3.0, and Windows NT 3.5. I don’t know if you were aware, but OS/2 was initially codeveloped by IBM and Microsoft – to replace Windows. Too bad they couldn’t just get along… It would have been completed and fully functional before Windows 3.0 was released, and was clearly superior!

    Link to this
  7. 7. jtdwyer 11:35 am 09/10/2010

    Chryses – What’s needed now is some mad venture capitalist…

    However, I don’t think that a general purpose consumer robot can ‘improve productivity’ like the PC, internet and phone has. As a result I doubt they can ever be sold in economic quantities.

    Link to this
  8. 8. robert schmidt 10:52 pm 09/10/2010

    I can think of a good number of applications for this for many of my clients. Once this gets to the 10-20k price point I’d consider getting one myself. What about integrating this with Microsoft Robitcs Studio?

    @Andira, "The consumer wants not a robot like this, however attractive it seems to me, but an easy to use product that has multiple applications without a need for programming" you should try reading the article. For example, "with the help of an open community of devoted engineers and software developers" Doesn’t sound like they are talking about consumers here. This product is geared towards developers so they can create applications for consumers.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jtdwyer 1:21 pm 09/11/2010

    robert schmidt -Unfortunately, the folks at Willow Garage seem to be the source of confusion. They apparently believe that the PC became a huge success after enthusiastic hobbyists produced add on products to make the PC attractive to the public. The opening statement clearly indicates that they are targeting the general public, like the PC:

    "Until someone develops a common platform for building robots (think of the combination of Windows and Intel that has made PCs so accessible), the technology will remain elusive to the general public. At least that’s the contention of Willow Garage, Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif. company that Wednesday made its PR2 personal robot available to the public."

    But then the article goes on to state:

    "Willow Garage is hoping that its robot will blossom with the help of an open community of devoted engineers and software developers that can build on the PR2′s basics and share their breakthroughs with each other."

    As I recall, hobbyist and other enthusiasts formed the initial PC customer base, which perhaps grew a little, in fits and starts as vendors announced a myriad of highly individualistic products.

    Then IBM began delivering low cost PCs at high volumes. This provided a reference design and standard specifications for both software and other hardware vendors. IBM created the highly successful, high volume, standardized PC market with their enormous capital investment.

    IMO, Willow Garage seems to be following the geek business model.

    Link to this

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