Monday, June 30, 2008

Real-Life Wall-Es in Silicon Valley

Meet 3 Startups Building Practical “Human Helper” Robots

At the movies this week, an adorable robot named Wall-E, along with an entire spaceship of robots, do all the dirty yet necessary work that human beings no longer want to do. Now, three groups of entrepreneurs in the Bay Area are showing off real robots for just that purpose.

There are plenty of robots being built in other places in the world, but most of them are either expensive science projects like the Japanese ASIMO, or super-simple, super-limited devices like vacuum cleaners or lawnmowers. What developers still haven’t tackled, say industry insiders, is a multi-purpose robot, or so-called “service” robot that can work around human beings in homes and businesses.

These service robots generally aren’t humanoid, with wheels instead of legs, and don’t crack jokes. But they do have 2 arms that reach about as high and far as a human being, allowing them to do basic human tasks – loading a dishwasher for example – yet stay within the budget of average homes and businesses. Talk to a robotics researcher for the timeline for such a robot, and you often hear “20 years away” (which is an academic code-phrase that means “I don’t know”) But as it turns out, the ever-fertile minds of the entrepreneurs are already at work, with announcements of real products that are months, or at most years away. Introducing the real Wall-Es of Silicon Valley.

Willow Garage

Willow Garage is a group of Stanford University roboticists building a device called the PR1 – a “Personal Robot” about the size of a large upright vacuum cleaner with 2 human arms and an array of cameras. Situated in a plush office in a chic neighborhood of Menlo Park, the PR-1 developers say their next model, the PR-2, should be shipped to researchers in test quantities in by the end of 2008. Their software is designated specifically “open source”. Funding is apparently provided by one or more former Google employees...announcements on the Willow Garage website demonstrate the well-funded nature of their project, with the claim that a team of 60 full-time roboticists could be supported “indefinitely” and an $850,000 dollars US donation to the Stanford University robotics program.

Willow Garage Home
Personal Robot Link (new!!)


Anybot, located in Mountain View, has developed two separate designs; a humanoid walking robot that apparently competes with the ASIMO, and a wheeled robot that is intended for more practical use. The walking robot, called Dexter, uses what the firm called “Dynamic Balancing” which it says is more flexible and realistic than the static design used by ASIMO and others. Both robots show a mass of tubes, joints, and wires, with no concessions to consumer appearance so far. Unlike most other designs, Anybot uses pneumatic (air driven) pistons for moving arms and legs, instead of electric motors more commonly favored by other designers; they claim pneumatics gives them a more “realistic” feel.

Anybots was founded by a former Yahooo entrepreneur who is also founder of venture capital firm. With cover stories in the local newspaper and visits to art galleries, they appear to be making plenty of marketing headway.

Anybot Home
Anybot Video of Monty


The Readybot Challenge is organized as a “non-profit group of veteran engineers” that decided (just for the challenge, they say) to build a kitchen-cleaning robot. They released two videos which show a robot that looks the simplest but most commercial-looking we've seen, complete with chrome trim. The videos themselves are entertaining, with a finger-snapping soundtrack. The most traditional seat-of-their-pants upstart – the group says the robot was built in their founder’s garage – they say their design philosophy is modeled after the historic IBM PC “clone” market, where all the components, arms, video systems, and base, could be made by different specialized vendors and snapped together into different easy-to-upgrade configurations. Sounds good; let’s see if they can pull it off.

Readybot Home
Readybot Video (very enjoyable and consumer-friendly)

Who Will Win?

At this early stage, the question is probably irrelevant. All three of these start-ups appear to have smart people, working on a problem that has a long lead time and significant hurdles. Willow Garage is clearly the best-funded, able to dole out grants to Stanford University and attract attract the best talent, but as many high-tech ventures have found over the years, such largesse can lead to complacency. Readybot is the scrappy competitor, launching geurilla marketing campaigns from the founders living room, but do they have lasting power? Anybots appears to be in the middle, but their designs look highly technical, and not consumer-focused. The reality is, any of these or some combination could succeed, or just as likely, none of them may succeed if the market for such robots never catches fire.

Sit back, grab a box of popcorn. This movie will be fun to watch.

What is a Service Robot?

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Service robots assist human beings, typically by performing a job that is dirty, dull, distant, dangerous or repetitive, including household chores. They typically are autonomous and/or operated by a build in control system, with manual override options.

Examples of service robots