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Superfast Scanner Lets You Digitize Book By Flipping Pages

Scanning a book manually, page by page, is a slow, mind-numbing task. Google has had some ideas on how to speed up the process, but apparently these methods are still limited by how fast human hands can manipulate a book's pages before an image-capturing system.

Google, meet Masatoshi Ishikawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo. Ishikawa is well known in robotics circles for his Matrix bullet time-style amazing demos -- like a robo-hand that can catch objects in midair with superhuman speed. How he does it? He built a "Super Vision Chip" (that's what he calls it) that can "see" events too fast for the eye.

Ishikawa and his colleagues are already working on several applications -- including a microscope that can track individual bacteria and a video game motion-capture system for gesture playing. Late last year when I visited the lab, they showed me their latest creation: a superfast book scanner.

The system, developed by lab members Takashi Nakashima and Yoshihiro Watanabe, lets you scan a book by rapidly flipping its pages in front of a high-speed camera. They call this method book flipping scanning. They told me they can digitize a 200-page book in one minute, and hope to make that even faster.

The camera operates at 500 frames per second, with a resolution of 1280 by 1024 pixels. For each frame, the system alternates between two capture modes. First it shines regular light on the page and captures text and images. Then a laser device projects lines on the page and the camera captures that as well.

The scanned pages are curved and distorted, but the researchers found a way to fix that. The laser pattern allows the system to obtain a page's three-dimensional deformation using active stereo methods. So they wrote software that builds a 3D model of the page and reconstructs it into a regular, flat shape.

The system is currently a prototype that occupies an entire lab bench. But in the future, they hope to simplify and miniaturize it for integration into portable devices like a smartphone. So one day you might be able to flip the pages of a book in front of your iPhone and get a digitized version in seconds.

True, it might not be a perfect, high-resolution copy of the book. The scanning process might skip pages and, well, your fingers might appear in the images. And that's not to mention all the copyright questions.

In fact, Watanabe told me he was particularly interested in scanning manga comics. Imagine, he said, if all of Japan's vast manga archives, at libraries, homes, and elsewhere, could be rapidly scanned and shared among manga fans around the world. That'd be nice. Alas, when he contacted one publisher, they didn't like his idea and forbade him from using their books for testing the scanning device. Watanabe currently uses a mock book he made himself.

Watch the video in high-resolution.

Dean Kamen on FIRST

dean kamen first robotics

At this weekend’s FIRST robotics NYC regional competition, FIRST founder Dean Kamen could be spotted signing autographs—often on T-shirts and hats—for eager high schoolers, or chatting with kids and fellow FIRST officials. It was refreshing to see them go ga-ga over a “rock star” inventor instead of a Hollywood celebrity (no offense to celebrities, of course).

During a few moments when he wasn’t working the crowd, Kamen took time to tell me what goes into planning each year’s robotics challenge, and to explain what he likes best about FIRST.

The robotics competition presents high school teams with a new challenge each year—this year’s task was to roll or kick soccer-like balls into goals while navigating obstacles on a playing field a little smaller than a basketball court. Kamen says his game design team changes the challenge every year because they don’t want returning teams to have a huge advantage over rookies, or to get bored and not come back each year.

They also want to focus on teaching kids how to solve new, complex problems, where in most other sports, Kamen says, “you’re learning how to optimize something that people have been doing for a long time.

“We try to emulate other sports, with the passion and the excitement and the instant gratification and the winners and the trophies...In many was we think it’s better than the academic or corporate model,” Kamen says. But in some cases, the sports model doesn’t apply.

Take NASCAR. “The cars are all identical, other than the logo from the advertising,” Kamen says, because the vehicle has been optimized. It has to be really low and really fast, for example. “But engineering innovation is [about] the discontinuity: a whole new approach, a whole new problem, a whole new solution,” Kamen says.

“We don’t want FIRST to become an optimization exercise,” he says. Instead, he wants the wow factor, for kids to open the box of parts each year and say wow, what is this stuff?!

This year’s game, for which young robot builders had to take into account several different features—the shape of raised bumps in the field, the size of the balls, and the height of bumper-like ramps on the goals that robots would have to roll up, rather than kicking straight and level—made the game “substantially more difficult” than the game designers expected, Kamen says.

But the kids “rise to the occasion,” he adds, and “they’re getting better and better by the day.”

True that. While Friday’s practice rounds often ended with no points scored, the final rounds on Sunday boasted several scores of seven or eight points, and almost never sported 0. Watching teams go from opening rounds to final rounds in each of the regional competitions, Kamen says, “you feel like you just watched kids go from T-ball to the World Series before your very eyes.”

One challenge with getting spectators excited about the game has been its complicated scoring system. In the past, Kamen says, “it was very hard to figure out who was winning until the game was over.”

This year the design team focused on making it easy for the audience to understand, complete with a real-time scoring system, with points and penalties listed immediately after each round. As an audience member, I thought it certainly made the game fun to watch, and it kept the kids’ energy high.

Kamen is proud that FIRST fosters kids who are “intensely competitive and simultaneously gracious.” The proof was evident:  despite team spirit that brought out painted faces, capes, caps, and even a marching band, the teams still remembered that they were working together. In one instance in the “pit”—a huge, bustling area where teams and their robots and tools occupy tradeshow-like nooks—an announcer broadcasted that one team needed black electrical tape. Sure enough, a few seconds later, someone from another team zipped over with a roll of it.

Another broadcast was on behalf of a team looking for a fuse, which was shortly provided. So while the teams compete for top honors, they also learn fundamental cooperation skills. Can you imagine a football team offering a spare helmet to the opposition?

FIRST awards exist for this kind of behavior, namely the coveted Chairman’s Award, given for the team that best represents the goals of FIRST: respect, professionalism, and honoring science and technology. Other awards recognize top mentors, gracious professionals, innovators, and team spirit.

This year, Kamen introduced a new award: the Dean’s List (chuckles all around). This will go to student leaders who foster awareness of FIRST and its mission of spreading enthusiasm for science and technology to their communities. The award is also meant to inspire kids to continue as leaders of the FIRST alumni community (of which I am a proud member).

What Kamen is most proud of, however, isn’t the engineering, or the game. “In six weeks, you can’t expect kids to fundamentally grasp all of the sophisticated disciplines of engineering,” he explains. “The robot is just a vehicle, no pun intended. What they’re really building are serious relationships between kids and adults. Kids are building confidence, respect for each other, their teams.”

What’s more, he adds: “Every kid on every one of our teams can turn pro. You can’t say that about football or basketball.”

To Probe Further:

Learn more about FIRST, the FIRST-National Instruments robot control systems, Dean Kamen's robotic "Luke" arm, and how Kamen took his private island off the grid.

Photos: Dean Kamen with the masses; robotic playing field; teams controlling their robots from behind a shield.

Robosoft Unveils Kompai Robot To Assist Elderly, Disabled

French service robotics company Robosoft has introduced a robot called Kompaï designed to assist elderly and disabled people and others who need special care. The mobile robot talks, understands speech, and can navigate autonomously. It reminds people of meetings, keeps track of shopping lists, plays music, and works as a videoconference system for users to talk with their doctors, for example.

The video below is pretty awesome. It shows a senior at Broca Hospital, in Paris, interacting with the robot after receiving only a few minutes of training. The man asks the robot about the time, date, and whether he has any appointments that day; Kompaï gives answers in a computerized voice.

"Robot?" the man says. "What can I do for you?" Kompaï responds. The man asks what is on the shopping list. "Fourteen apple, four cheese, and 18 tomato," the bot responds. The man says, "Add five eggs to the shopping list." Done.

The video also demonstrates how the man uses the robot when he doesn't feel well. "Robot, I'm not fine," the man says. "Where does it hurt?" Kompaï replies. The robot goes on to ask a series of questions and then tells the man that it sent that information to his doctor by email.

My favorite part is toward the end, when the man gives the robot the following command:

"Robot," he says, "leave me alone."

"OK. I stop talking. Call me when you like," Kompaï responds and promptly leaves the room.

This is how Robosoft describes Kompaï:

It is a mobile and communicative product. Somewhat like a dog, it has its "basket," which is the recharging dock that it heads back to when its batteries are low. Equipped with speech, it is able to understand simple orders and give a certain level of response. It knows its position within the house, how to get from one point to another on demand or on its own initiative, and it remains permanently connected to the internet and all its associated services.

Its primary means of communication with people is speech, with an additional touch screen that features simple icons. Future generations of Kompaï will be equipped with visual abilities, and also the possibility to understand and express emotions. And later, the addition of arms will allow it to handle objects, leading to meal preparation and tidying; more practical functions, yet still fundamental in everyday life.

The first generation of the robot, to be officially introduced next week at the Intercompany Long Term Care Insurance Conference in New Orleans, is an R&D platform, "intended for developers who would like to implement their own robotics applications for assistance," Vincent Dupourqué, CEO of Robosoft, said in a statement.

Robosoft is one of Europe's largest service robotics companies. They are famous (at least to me) for their robot that cleans the Louvre glass pyramid.

Make sure you watch Kompaï in action:


Correction: The Intercompany Long Term Care Insurance Conference will take place in New Orleans from March 14-17, 2010.

Willow Garage Details Its Robotics Navigation Software

In a recent video, Willow Garage researcher Eitan Marder-Eppstein describes the open-source navigation stack they've released as version 1.0. The code, available at, was designed to be flexible and cross-platform, he says, and could be used in anything from a small iRobot Create-based bot to a large multi-sensor robot like Willow's own PR2 (which Spectrum has covered in detail here and here).

The stack lets users configure different sensors, change the footprint of the robot, integrate SLAM systems, and use a 2D or 3D view of the world. Says Marder-Eppstein:

"In particular the three-dimensional view of the world enables the robot to avoid obstacles like tables, chairs, and people's feet."

And a guy trying to hit it with a two-by-four.

"This is a significant improvement over navigation stacks that view the world as purely planar," he says.

I like Willow because their work is practical and promising. And because they have a sense of humor. They really put their bodies on the line.

Kojiro Humanoid Robot Mimics Your Musculoskeletal System

Kojiro is an advanced musculoskeletal humanoid robot under development at the University of Tokyo's JSK Robotics Laboratory. Kojiro's creators designed its body to mimic the way our skeleton, muscles, and tendons work to generate motion. The goal is to build robots that are light and agile, capable of moving around and interacting with the physical world in the same way our flesh bodies do.

I met Kojiro during a visit to the JSK lab late last year. Masayuki Inaba, a professor at Tokyo University, and Yuto Nakanishi, a researcher and one of Kojiro's main developers, showed me their latest trick: using a PS2 controller to make Kojiro move. In particular, they wanted to demo the robot's spine motion.

Other research groups are also exploring the idea of anthropomimetic humanoids. But I don't think many of them have a flexible spine, which is one of Kojiro's main innovations. Like the human spine, Kojiro’s can bend in different directions to let the robot arch and twist its torso. It can't quite dance the Macarena yet, but it shows some promising hip moves.

Nakanishi explained to me that most humanoid robots have articulated limbs and torsos powered by DC motors at the joints. Although these robots have a good range of motion, they're typically hard and heavy, making collisions with humans and objects a big problem.

Kojiro does use DC motors, but the motors pull cables attached to specific locations on the body, simulating how our muscles and tendons contract and relax. These tendon-muscle structures -- Kojiro has about 100 of them -- work together to give the robot some 60 degrees of freedom, or much more than could be achieved with motorized rotary joints.

And instead of big, bulky DC motors, Kojiro uses lightweight, high-performance ones. Its brushless motors are quite small (16 millimeters [0.6 inches] in diameter and 66.4 mm [2.5 inches] in length) but can deliver a substantial 40 watts of output power.

Each motor unit has a rotary encoder, tension sensor, and current and temperature sensing circuit. A driver circuit board automatically adjusts the current fed to the motors based on temperature measurements. The results are transmitted to a computer and displayed on a control screen developed by Takanishi.

To make the robot safer, the researchers built its body using mostly light and flexible materials. To keep track of its posture and limb positions, they embedded joint angle sensors on spherical joints and six-axis force sensors on the ankles. For balance, the robot uses three gyros and a three-axis accelerometer on its head.

The main drawback of using a musculoskeletal system is that controlling the robot's body is difficult. This kind of system has lots of nonlinearities and is hard to model precisely. To develop control algorithms for Kojiro, the JSK team is using an iterative learning process. They first attempt small moves and little by little tweak the control parameters until the robot can handle more complex movements.

Eventually they hope to integrate control for the head, spine, arms, and legs. Then Kojiro might do the Macarena.

More photos:

Images: JSK Lab / Additional photos: Erico Guizzo

MeBot Brings Intuitive Movement to Telepresence

Most telepresence robots (with a few exceptions) aren’t especially presence-y, in that you can see people, and people can see you, but you’re pretty much just a head on a screen on a robotic stick with wheels. MeBot, a project from the Personal Robotics Group at MIT, adds a little bit of personality to telepresence by providing ways for users to communicate non-verbally, through things like head movement, arm movement, and posture:

The clever bit is that you, as the user, don’t need to tell the robot to do any of the expressive stuff that it does with its screen. It watches what you’re doing with your head, and duplicates those socially expressive movements with the robot. Is it effective? You bet:

We conducted an experiment that evaluated how people perceived a robot-mediated operator differently when they used a static telerobot versus a physically embodied and expressive telerobot. Results showed that people felt more psychologically involved and more engaged in the interaction with their remote partners when they were embodied in a socially expressive way. People also reported much higher levels of cooperation both on their own part and their partners as well as a higher score for enjoyment in the interaction.

Even though it has those little 3 DoF arms, MeBot isn’t designed to do anything in particular with its additional axes of motion. You currently control them sympathetically using a second set of arms, the positions and movements of which are duplicated by the arms on the robot. Conceivably, you could add some grippers to the robot and a more comprehensive control system on the other end, but that would defeat a large part of the purpose (and the beauty) of MeBot: it’s designed to be purely expressive, implying a natural simplicity that requires no extra effort or skill. It just does its thing while you do yours, which is how all the best systems (hardware and software alike) tend to function.

Another vid with a few more details, after the jump.

[ MeBot ] via [ Hizook ]

Computers Shown More Creative Than Humans

Photo: Catherine Karnow/Miller-McCune

UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor David Cope has for 20 years been working on software, called Emily Howell, that generates original and modern music. Using algorithms that mathematically mixes, recombines, and alters musical combinations, his music can often convincingly mimic the styles of the great classical composers such as Mozart and Bach.

That said, his work has generated a hostility from those who believe creativity is something a machine could never have, arguing that only humans can compose music with 'liveliness' and 'soul'. What I particularly find interesting about the article Triumph of the Cyborg Composer is that it shows the strong prejudices we have against anything that belittles the meaning and spirituality of our lives. The world is flat, earth is the center of the universe, and we all have souls that can't be bestowed onto robots.

What attracted me to this article wasn't the enjoyable music examples by Emily Howell that you can download, but this precursor to the modern-day Spanish Inquisition us robot creators and AI researchers will perhaps one day face.

    "We are so damned biased, even those of us who spend all our lives attempting not to be biased. Just the mere fact that when we like the taste of something, we tend to eat it more than we should. We have our physical body telling us things, and we can't intellectually govern it the way we'd like to," he says. In other words, humans are more robotic than machines. "The question," Cope says, "isn't whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul."

New 'Swifferbot' Cleans Floors the Easy Way

iRobot has long dominated the market for home cleaning robots, but other competitors have begun to emerge. Evolution Robotics has developed a new robot called Mint which uses disposable cleaning cloths to clean hard floors. By outsourcing the cleaning technology, Evolution was able to focus on the navigation and usability of the robot. The Mint should be available later this year for less than US $250.

Quadcopter, Hexacopter, Octocopter ... UAVs

Five years ago few people had even heard of Quadcopters (also called Quadricopters or Quadrotors). Now they seem to be everywhere, from university labs and hobbyists to UAV competitions and commercial platforms. What happened?

According to a recent Robots Podcast interview with Joshua Portlock, manager of the CyberQuad project at Australia's Cyber Technology, what happened is a classical case of an enabling technology being driven by the consumer market. Fast, precise and affordable accelerometers are a key technology for Quadcopters. Their development was initially driven by their use for airbags in cars, and now increasingly by their use in consumer devices such as mobile phones.

Accelerometers are key because unlike standard helicopters, which use complex mechanics to allow stable flight, Quadrotors use fast onboard motor control to take care of stability. This mechanical simplicity is also their main attraction: Quadrotors can navigate in three dimensions using only four moving parts. And the high reliability of brushless motors makes them a simpler, more reliable alternative to many traditional flying platforms.

Hexacopters such as the one featured in the video above allow to pack more rotors into a given size providing more power. Other designs including Octocopters (such as the one in the picture below) and ducted fan or counter-rotating versions allow further versatility needed for specific applications such as indoor flight.


The AscTec Falcon 8
The AscTec Falcon 8

For now most applications such as inspection of power lines, oil rigs or wind turbines, law enforcement surveillance or military reconnaissance are very real-time and do not require much autonomy beyond simple GPS waypoint navigation. However, that may soon change.

Future application scenarios include robotic security guards that can rapidly react to a triggered alarm by autonomously providing surveillance of a specific site or area. Other tasks center around autonomous border patrol and perimeter search. And the military is considering sending groups of Quadrotor UAVs that can perch on powerlines, rocks and rooftop edges ahead of convoys for advanced surveillance, which may also allow automatic pin-pointing of sniper locations using sound triangulation.

For further reading, have a look at the Portlock interview or the German MikroKopter project.

Thanks Erico, Antoine and Adam!

EPOS Robotic Facility Simulates Satellite Repair Mission


Space robotics may appear to be a purely scientific endeavor -- brave little rovers exploring planets in search of life -- but it turns out there's a multi-million dollar market in space just waiting for the right kind of robot. This market is satellite servicing.

Geostationary communication satellites fire small thrusters to stay in orbit. When they run out of fuel (typically helium or hydrazine), or when a battery or gyroscope fails, these expensive satellites often have to be abandoned, becoming just another piece of space junk, even though their mechanical systems and electronics work fine.

Space agencies and companies around the world are developing robotic servicing systems (the United States demonstrated one such system in its Orbital Express mission), but putting these systems in space, docking them to satellites, and performing repairs remains a big challenge.

To address the problem, DLR (Germany's NASA equivalent) launched the European Proximity Operations Simulator, or EPOS, initiative. EPOS is a robotic facility designed to simulate on-orbit rendezvous, docking, and repair maneuvers. EPOS allows engineers to do computers simulations of a docking system with hardware in the loop.

For this project, DLR partnered with Robo-Technology, a small industrial robotic integrator that designed, built and programmed the EPOS hardware. Its main components are the two robots and the 25 meter linear track, which defines the working range. Both robots offer 6 degrees of freedom, so the two satellites can be positioned relative to each other, but also relative to instrumentation in the lab.

The simulation is as realistic as possible, so there is a sun simulator, the satellites "believe" to be in zero gravity and the high control bandwidth of 250 Hz enables the 1:1 simulation of contact dynamics during the capturing and docking. Even the capturing of a satellite with non-zero rotation can be simulated with EPOS using actuators which are remote-controlled as if a radio transmission from ground to space would take place.

DLR is using the system now to evaluate approach scenarios and test docking cameras using 1:1 satellite mock-ups. And just like on Earth for more common objects, things would be so much simpler for the roboticist if the design of the satellite had considered the robot limitations. But then, where would the fun be?

The video below explains the EPOS initiative (even if you don't understand German, it's fun to watch the robots in action).

Photo and video: DLR

Samuel Bouchard is a co-founder of Robotiq in Quebec City.



IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:

Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
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Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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