The convergence patterns for robotics
During the dotcom hype of the 1990s, a frequently touted future involved “convergence” – the integration of radio, television, telephone and the Internet into one meta-network. As it stands in 2004, this integration is proceeding more slowly than expected. Cellphones using 3G technology (so we can supposedly watch music videos beamed to our phones) has stalled, and Internet traffic in 2004 had dropped below 2003 levels, a remarkable (and unremarked) trend. Home entertainment centers have proliferated, but the percent that double as personal computers is extremely small. It appears that cyberspace convergence will happen less rapidly – and is less interesting – than once thought.
One of the reasons that cyberspace convergence hasn’t happened is that it is more useful to the producer than the consumer. Mixing a home theater with a PC has marginal value for consumers, who tend to use their PCs for work and gaming and their home theaters for movies and television. But linking these two technologies makes the entertainment industry slobber, since “networked entertainment” would allow Digital Rights Management extending to pay-per-view DVDs, spyware monitoring home user’s activities, and the like. The value proposition for convergence helps business, and restricts the consumer.
Ditto with 3G. Most people use cellphones for communication. When they send pictures and/or video they are typically exchanging pictures of themselves or their friends. In contrast, 3G’s so-called “promise” is to beam one-way video from content providers to consumers and charge them for it. High-bandwidth 3Gs would also allow higher charges on phone use, since more bits are being sent. All this for the dubious pleasure of watching MTV during a commute or at the beach (yawn). Again, convergence has a very small value for the consumer, but a big one for the entertainment company and phone company.
Finally, consider the repeated, expensive, and pathetic efforts to mix TV with a computer in the so-called “interactive television” (ITV) model. In theory, interactive television allows you to have a super-sized remote with additional buttons like “buy” and “charge credit card.” When a commercial runs on-screen, you can press the “buy” button. Also, one could have movies on demand. However, with a good TViO-style system and recorder I get the video on demand via intelligent time-shifting. And as for shopping – there are shopping networks that do quite fine without that extra “buy” button on the remote. The ITV industry has seen repeated failures wasting billions of dollars, whie TViO systems are taking off. Why? ITV was “convergence” that benefited business at marginal value to the consumer. TViO systems maximize benefit to consumers – we don’t want to push the “buy” button during a commercial, we want to erase it!
Is really a wonder that “convergence” touted by the cyber-pundits hasn’t happened?
The real era of “convergence” for cyberspace was the close of the 1970s. In that era, microprocessors and a few other technologies (small floppy disk drive controllers) led to the birth of the personal computer. Mixing digital and analog technology resulted in camcorders and VCRs. Mixing scanners and printers resulted in low-cost faxes. These were examples of technology convergence that benefited the consumer and spawned a revolution. In the 1990s, the real convergence was graphic computer displays and the Internet. The Internet had been around for a while (along with text-only BBS systems) but it didn’t take off until the Mosaic, the web browser created by Marc Andressen, put text and color pictures downloaded from cyberspace into the same window.
So, there are two types of technological convergence. One fuese technologies to create new products which increase consumer power and choice. The other maximizes business profit by increasing control of consumers. Which one do you think tends to happen?
Robotics is about to undergo the first, “good” convergence. This convergence is not the wishful thinking of cyberspace alway-on always paying for it, but a real convergence resulting in the creation of new products. Here are several of the fields/technologies that are coming together to create the robot revolution:
1. Industrial design – new true 3D design CAD/CAM systems with “physics” modeling are making it possible to rapidly design robot bodies. An example:
“UGS PLM Solutions, the product lifecycle management (PLM) subsidiary of EDS (NYSE: EDS), today announced that SANYO Electric Co., Ltd., Japan’s leading home appliance company, used UGS PLM Solutions’ NX portfolio to reduce development cycle of the latest version of the “Banryu” (guard-dragon) utility robot by 50 percent.”
In a few years it will be simple to model out obvious mistakes in complex, multiple degree-of-freedom robots.
2. Behavioral design – This area is just beginning. Currently, most robots are programmed in a hard-coding fashion in assemlby or C. However, new software appearing at the hoby and research level allows users to define robot behaviors and then watch a virtual robot execute these behaviors. Not a substitute for the real world, but like 3D CAD/CAM, it allows obvious mistakes in creating robot “personality” to be ironed out before actually trying the robot. Here are some examples:
Mobotsoft – http://www.mobotsoft.com – Behavior authoring environment for Khepera, Hemisson and Koala robots. The system creates a graphical environment which writes (“scripts”) the BASIC commands needed for these robot’s controllers.
Cyberbotics – http://www.cyberbotics.com – Webbots provides more sophisticaled 3D modeling system for robot behavior creates simulated robots. Quite a few robot bodies (e.g. the Aibo robot dog) are in the software already, and new ones can be defined. The system also includes a large number of robot sensors modeled for the virtual environment. Real-world physics is simulated using the Open Dynamics Environment (ODE). Multi-agent (e.g. a robot soccer team) systems can be simulated. Once tested, a completed C or Java robot program can be directly downloaded to the real robot. This system still requires programming (rather than true authoring) of robot behaviors, but the testing happens at the authoring level.
Evolution Robotics ERSP 3.0 – http://www.evolution.com/product/oem/software/ – Software aimed at the consumer robot market, it allows Evolution’s excellent vision recognition and VSLAM navigation technology to be quickly implemented in any consumer device. The software features high-level object recognition (aroun 85%), tele-operation, and autnomous navigation which solves the “kidnapping” problem (e.g. a kid picks up their robot toy and puts it in a different room). In addition to low-level programming APIs the system includes a high-level graphic authoring interface for recognition and authoring. A remarkable example of this is the “behavior composer” which provides a “drag and drop” interface for creating behavior networks. Using this technology, a non-programmer in theory could create and integrate robot behaviors – truly a breakthrough product!
Here’s a great screenshot of the Evolution Robotics behavior-authoring interface:
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3. Animatronics – Traditionally, animatronics involved “puppeting” an elaborate robot body via human interaction. The contribution to robotics is a group of people used to building “bodies” who want to do more. Currently, the biggest thing in animatronics is “untethered” systems – in other words, those walking and moving on their own. There are essentially remote-controlled mobile robots.
4. Sensors – In the past, sensors were expensive, and robots typically only had a few, which greatly limited their ability to function in the real world. Now, sensors for motion, force, temperature, pressure, light, sound, radiation, and more are being produced as MEM (Micro Electronic Machines) largely for the auto industry. These low-cost sensor on a chip systems allow recent mobile robots like the Banryu and the Aibo to have nearly 100 sensors. Another 10-fold and these systems will begin to match the sensor number of simple insects. Vision is also greatly improved – cheap, solid-state webcams are now commonplace. This allows creating robots with multiple, low-res eyes looking in every direction rather than an elaborate TV camera.
5. Fuel cells – For mobile robots to be useful, they have to have enough power, and batteries aren’t enough. Work on creating small-scale fuel cells will direclty benefit mobile robots. Of course, some robots will puff like the Tin Man and others will have to use the little robot’s room to vent their waste water, but they’ll be able to do real work.
6. Small single-board computers – Desktop computers are bulky and power-hungry, and optimized for things not useful for robots. However, companies like VIA are developing single-board computers with speeds up to 1 GHz allowing the construction of “PC-bots” using desktop software, bluetooth, wi-fi, TCP/IP and more. This immediately allows mobile robots to do anything a cyberspace computer can do. While not ideal, it allows hobbists to break out of the BASIC stamp “trap” they’ve been in for two decades and create more powerful mobile robots.
7. Three-dimensional printing – Printers which can create a 3D part in plastic have dropped into the $30,000 range. The secret is creating ink-like sprays that use metal, plastic, or semiconductor particles that are later fused in an annealing step. This allows a mobile robot to be designed and have its parts created simply by pushing the “print” button. Again, very rapid prototyping of robot bodies is supported. In just a few years it may be possible to create articulated parts with these printers, and incorporate different materials into the 3D printed product, even metal.
8. New chips – New Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and Digital/Analog chips are allowing rapid pre-processing of raw sensory data. Instead of devoting expensive time in the robot’s “brain” to low-level visual and auditory processing, DSPs allow this to be done in massively parallel, sometimes analog circuits almost instantaneously. This approach was used by Digital Auto Drive (DAD) to create a snap-on robot module for their truck used in the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge. In contrast to the traditional software and CPU approaches (many which didn’t get out of the gate) DAD managed a very respectable performance at a fraction of the cost. More chips are appearing, allowing massively parallel simulations of neural net and genetic algorithm programs, certain to boost robot performance in the sensory and motor control area.
All of these technologies allow the creation of “startup” robot companies quite literally in garage-level environments. Imagine an office combing authoring software, 3D CAD/CAM, and 3D printers. A small group can quickly devise and test mobile robots at a fraction of the cost of big military and government contractors. They can substitute pre-written software and parallel DSP chips for massive programming projects. They key will lie in figuring out the type of robotic products consumers want. But these ideas will flow from true robotic convergence rather than being a profit-margin fantasy characteristic of today’s cyberspace convergence.