Robot can fold socks, grab a beer, play pool

November 14, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
So your boyfriend plays pool, fetches a beer, and sometimes puts away his socks. He can be replaced -- by a new robot from a company in Menlo Park. Richard Hart reports on the Drive to Discover a robot that can do everything.

Opening a door is a complex task. Is there a knob or a handle? Which way does the door swing? You need to get out of the way. This is all Child's play for PR2. PR2 is a new robot from Willow Garage -- a small company that really is not in the business of making robots.

"Toyota makes cars because they have to, and Apple makes phones because that's now their business. Willow makes robots because we can't buy them," says CEP Steve Cousins. They can't buy one that will do what PR2 can. It's all about the software.

Willow is the force behind ROS (Robot Operating System), to program a robot to do everything. It's no use if you don't have a robot that can do everything. So the employees at the company made 24 of the robots to get things started and recently gave some to the world's top research institutions. They got the robot to fetch a beer and to shoot pool.

From UC Berkeley they got one to sort and put on socks. From Stanford, they got a robot to clear the table and do the dishes, as well as a dozen other firsts.

"We're looking for robots that work in human environments, where people work," says Cousins. "And robots that can work around environments that people are in, as opposed to robots that are in factories. We're trying seriously to grow a personal robotics industry that will eventually change the way that all of us live, work and play."

For that, robots need to see and hear the way we do, in stereo. So we tried on a pair of robot headphones. Putting what the robot hears into your ears, and putting what it sees into your eyes, puts your head into the robot's head. And it puts the robot someplace between autonomous and completely remote control. That's assisted teleoperation.

At its current $400,000, this is not a consumer product -- yet. As the remaining PR2s go out the door, Steve Cousins predicts that we will see even more amazing performances -- many world-changing, even life-saving -- leading to a universal personal robot within 10 years.

It may also open all sorts of new doors.


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