Georgia Tech announced today that it has established an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in robotics. The program, scheduled to start in the fall, is part of Georgia Tech's new Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, says this is the first program of its kind in the United States. From the press release:
Reaching across disciplines and drawing from curricula in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, aerospace, biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, the doctoral degree is designed to educate a new breed of multidisciplinary researchers who will enter the market best prepared to chart a new course for robotics in the United States.
Georgia Tech says the program expects to admit approximately 15 candidates per year, eventually building it to 60 enrolled students. The program consists of 36 semester hours of core research and elective courses, a comprehensive qualifying exam with written and oral components, and a piece of original research and doctoral thesis.
As a kid growing up in a pretty snowy area, part of the wintertime ritual was building a snow fort. Not being talented snow sculptors, one year my friends and I decided to make "bricks" by packing snow into recycling bins, pouring cold water over it, and using the resulting molded ice bricks to construct our forts. (Being kids, our patience for this lasted all of one brick, so the forts weren't a lot to write home about)
But behold! Japan brings us the robotic answer to not just your snow shoveling woes, but snow fort brickmaking as well!
I have many friends who have cats, and sometimes I feel left out of all that feline talk. Bad allergies prevent me from procuring a real cat, but maybe now there's a way I can join the cat-loving bunch.
Today's Times has a story on the AC Gears store that just opened in New York City (the store is the first bricks-and-mortar location of the famed online gadget shop AudioCubes.com), and one of the featured products is the Segatoys Dream Cat Smile Robot.
This Japanese robotic cat, powered by three C batteries, has five touch sensors and it can blink, move its mouth and neck, rear up, and lie down. It also purrs and meows, and if you squeeze the tail it will growl.
You know, that motorized climber attached to a 100,000-km long superstrong cable stretching from Earth's surface to a counterweight in space, capable of whisking people and cargo to the heavens.
A student robotics competition is calling participants to do just that. Well, not a full-size elevator, but a small functional prototype. The organizers call it the "Space Elevator, Jr."
The contest, organized by Ahad Nasab, a professor of engineering technology at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, is part of the Earth & Space Conference 2008, to take place 3-5 March 2008 in Long Beach, Calif.
The competition calls for students from high schools and colleges to build a climber able to move up and down a 6-meter long ribbon using power received solely by a light source at the base of the ribbon. Bonus points if it carries a payload all the way to the top. It should be fun!
This month's PC Magazine has a collection of short essays from some of the big names in tech about what the next 25 years will look like in their respective fields. iRobot CEO Colin Angle weighs in with the following:
In 25 years, robots with manipulation capabilities will be common. We won't have artificial intelligence that is indistinguishable from human-level intelligence, but we will have robot intelligence capable of doing many things humans do, including performing a large number of special-purpose tasks. More than 75 percent of homes will have at least one robot regularly performing routine chores. There will be a -hierarchy of robots in your home. You'll communicate with the lead robot using language, and it will tell the other special-purpose robots what to do, but you'll never deal with those other robots directly.
PLEN is "the world's first desktop-sized humanoid robot", according to its creators at Systec Akazawa in Japan. PLEN comes in a kit full of parts to assemble your own little humanoid, including accessories like rollerskate feet, and with software that allows you to develop, save, and upload your own unique motions. You then control PLEN through Bluetooth-enabled devices like cell phones or PDAs. Below, PLEN demonstrates his skating prowess. (Here's another video of him, kicking a ball)
Now that robot toys have started to take off, their creators are starting to make an effort to differentiate the robots for boys and girls. I will spare you my rants about this philosophy for right now and instead talk about what these "girl robots" are and how they differ from their male-oriented counterparts. While I have no doubt that these toys will be popular with the younger girls I know, it's very interesting to see how these robots' creators are tweaking robotic technology in ways they think will best appeal to both genders.
First off is the Femisapien that I talked about a couple of days ago. Arguably the most empowered of the girly toys, she dances, poses, and generally looks awesome. She was made to be Robosapien's girlfriend, and according to one of the Wowwee reps I talked to at the booth, they can not only communicate with one another when in the same vicinity, but Femisapien appropriately speaks "emotish" while Robosapien speaks "caveman." Yes, she emotes and he grunts. She can reportedly order him around, too, though I didn't see any Femi-Robo interaction to verify this.
Spykee Vox and angel-winged Spykee Miss, above, are the yin and yang of Erector's Spykee models. Both are identical voice-activated, programmable, universal IR remote controlling robots that double as iPod docks. Their differences begin the moment you take them out of the box: while both are delivered in pieces that must be assembled, Miss has only one configuration while Vox has three different configurations that the owner can play with. Miss's configurability is related to accessories -- plastic hearts and stars, for example -- that can be attached to her arms or skirt. Their AI personalities are unique: on the MIss, you can choose "friendly" or "mean", and she gives advice in response to spoken questions. On the Vox, you can choose "hero" or "villain" and make him fight by shooting imaginary laser beams.
Finally, Wowwee also had their FlyTech line of fluttering and flying gadgets -- they're not quite robots, though each has varying degrees of simple remote control and navigation or obstacle avoidance capabilities. There's a neat helicopter that can engage in aerial dogfights with another helicopter... and then there are fairies and butterflies that can be launched and will fly around the room.
Beyond the softer design and pink and purple coloring, will the functional differences in these robots really appeal more to girls? Are these versions as likely to get girls interested in robots as a technical interest, or will they just be another toy? If these are the "girl" toys, does this mean until now the toys they've produced have only been "boy" toys?
Korean company Grandport is showing off their really neat Skyschool i-robo robot course kits. There are Beginner, Junior, Senior, and Expert courses, with a few levels within each. Each level has twelve weeks' worth of 90 minute exercises using the kit of parts and a textbook. The courses start with basic mechanism assembly and circuit board use and a proprietary GUI-based programming, and later incorporate Microsoft Robotics Studio integration, sensors, and navigation. The kits can include ultrasonic or IR sensors, Bluetooth modules, and several different types of motors.
Here's a picture of one of the models they had on display. Most of the kits are good for 10-11 different types of models.
Toys and vacuums are old news; the big new robots this year seem to be telepresence robots. iRobot, Wowwee, and Spykee all brought their new internet-controlled devices to demo video, audio, VoIP, Bluetooth, media players, and other capabilities.
Spykee was introduced at Digital Life last fall and it's already got a group of siblings. Designed by Meccano, the same company that produces the Erector set, all the Spykee versions come as a kit that has to be assembled. The original can be internet controlled from anywhere in the world and can be used for making and receiving Skype VoIP calls as well as playing digital media. Spykee Cell, a smaller version, uses Bluetooth to communicate with your cell phone and can control your iPod Nano or iPod Touch. Since it uses the Bluetooth connection with your cell phone, you can basically use it as a Bluetooth "headset" -- leave your phone on the desk and talk directly to your robot instead.
Wowwee's Rovio looks like a black UFO on Wowwee's popular new omni wheels. Controlled over the Internet, It has the standard camera, two-way speaker and microphone, and video link. What I think is most interesting about Rovio is that it uses Evolution Robotics's NorthStar navigation system to find its way around its environment to return to its docking station whenever it needs recharging. That's a really good partnership between those two companies.
iRobot had its ConnectR telepresence robot on display, though it wasn't being demoed. They are still in the process of identifying beta users for its pilot program that will help them determine what ConnectR will be used for and what features should be developed before the final release. Right now they think the major users will be the "sandwich generation" (middle-aged people taking care of both kids and elderly parents) who want to be able to check up on family members when they can't be physically present, and parents on business travel who want to call home in a more interactive manner.
Is telepresence really the next big thing? Wowwee and Spykee are pitching these robots as toys that kids will want to guard their rooms, play music, and spy on siblings; iRobot 's ConnectR is being pitched to a much older audience but is still waiting for a pilot program to tell them how this technology will really be used. Are these companies guessing right?
I've long been a little skeptical of Wowwee, makers of the Robosapien. Their black and white toys seemed rather basic and the little dog I have didn't appear to be much advanced beyond the walking and mooing cow I had when I was a toddler (my first robot. It annoyed my parents so much they removed the batteries and told me it died. I've never gotten over it). Frankly, they just seemed boring.
I am very pleased to report that I have been proven wrong. Wowwee's next generation of robot toys on display here at CES are, in a word, awesome.
My favorite is Robosapien's newly developed girlfriend, the Femisapien.
Finally, I can have my own hardsuit! Femisapien is a biped with a handful of obstacle avoidance sensors and a number of switches in her arms and head that allow the user to program her for different movements. Five different motors allow a range of motion in the arms, legs, and hips, in a surprisingly graceful dance-like gait. She also has sound response and when with other Femisapiens or Robosapiens, she can respond in different ways. Running on 6AA batteries you get about 10 hours of active life or 36 hours of "pose" mode; the lack of a rechargeable battery is a little annoying, but the tradeoff is in the price -- when she's released in September, she'll retail for $99. Not bad. Have a look at this video of three dancing Femisapiens:
Next up is Rex the Dog, the long-lost distanct cousin of the Sony AIBO. Rex is a "junkyard dog" made of scraps, and as a result he can get a little crazy. Rex is meant to be an interactive toy, so it can jump in to different types of moods -- happy, sad, angry, "breakdown", and even one mode where it gets confused and thinks it's a cat and starts meowing. 14 motors in the dog's face change its expression and control "slot machine" eyes that spin to different icons to reveal Rex's current mood. Rex tools around with two front paws and back wheels and seems to be very friendly. Of all the new robots Wowwee has here, Rex will be out the soonest -- this spring -- for $149.
Then there are the robot siblings: Tribot and Mr. Personality. Both robots have an omni drive permitting holomonic motion in all directions and there's a lot of speed in the drive train, similar to an RC car -- that's a big change from the slow walking of the Robosapien. Tribot is for young kids; he's bright red and is described as a "cartoon character" and "a kid come to life." He has about ten minutes total of content that he splits up as commentary and conversation with his owner. There's an guard mode for a young owner to protect his or her bedroom from unwanted visitors as well as an alarm clock with no snooze button -- you have to get out of bed and catch Tribot to turn him off. A handful of interactive games that are programmed in are meant to keep kids entertained.
Tribot's older brother, Mr. Personality, has an LCD screen face and more than 90
minutes of content. Mr. Personality tells jokes, stories, and offers sarcastic commentary on your activities (get home at 3 am? He'll ask you where you've been so late). When you get bored of his bad jokes, other personalities will be downloadable from Wowwee's website and can be loaded onto an SD card inserted into Mr. Personality's head. Like Femisapien, Tribot and Mr. Personality rely on replaceable batteries, but Mr. Personality can also be plugged into the wall. The idea is that you should never have to turn him off; just put him on a shelf plugged in and he'll wait for the next time you want some entertainment. I can see this guy being popular at fraternities.
Tribot will set you back $99 and Mr. Personality will be $249, both coming this September.
These are just really exciting. They're all incredibly different and do more than just walk around; they're much more interactive than the older robots and are more exciting to look at. With LCD screens faces, slot machine eyeballs, and graceful movement, these are things even *I* want to play with. And this is not to mention that the neat drive trains, obstacle avoidance sensors, and ability to communicate with similar toys in the vicinity make them much more obviously related to the big expensive bots that are out there. These really do seem like robots, and I'm pleased that Wowwee is working so hard to get more robots into the hands of average people.