I couldn't make it to Willow Garage's PR2 robot launch party last night, so I went as a robot.
While some 400 people dragged their physical bodies to the event in Menlo Park, Calif., I sat in my living room in Brooklyn, N.Y., and uploaded myself into a robot surrogate.
Using this telepresence robot, called Texai, I was able to move around, see and talk to Willowites and guests, and sip WD-40 cocktails. Just kiddin'. No drinks for robots.
Two Willow engineers built the first Texai prototype just for fun, using spare parts they found in the office. The robot proved so useful it became an official project at Willow, which has built 25 of them.
This was the second time this month I've embodied a robot, which convinces me humanlike androids and robotic surrogacy will become a reality sooner than we think.
But the star of the night, and the reason for the party, was another robot, Willow's PR2. Or more precisely, the 11 PR2s that Willow is giving away to institutions all over the world to speed up research in personal robotics.
The PR2 is a mobile robot with advanced vision and manipulation capabilities. Each costs several hundred thousand dollars. But what makes the robot stand out is its software: the Robot Operating System, or ROS, a powerful, open source robotics platform that Willow is building.
Eric Berger (left) and Keenan Wyrobek of Willow Garage show off the PR2 robot. I attended the event via a telepresence robot (that's my face on the bottom left corner).
My colleague Tekla Perry, who was also at the event (in her physical body), interviewed several PR2 recipients and will be posting videos.
For me the most interesting part was being a Texai for a night.
The robot's head is a standard flat-screen monitor, fixed atop a long metal pole. The Texai uses a wheel system similar to the PR2's. And it also runs ROS, which handles the motor controllers and teleoperation functions.
People I talked to via the robot really wanted to know how the driving works. The Texai uses Skype to establish a two-way video link, and a Web page shows a simple, intuitive control interface [below].
You just use the mouse to hold and drag a little red ball and the robot moves. You can also make the head camera point in different directions, or switch to an auxiliary camera that shows the robot's wheels, to help while navigating through furniture and feet.
Learning how to drive is easy. But safety first! Willow makes new Texai users watch a video showing all the things you should not do with the robot -- drive down a stairway, let children ride on it, stick a screwdriver into its body.
At first my driving was in grandma-mode. But after a few minutes I felt comfortable to drive faster and fearless. You can move in any direction, slowly or rapidly, as well as rotate on your vertical axis.
The robot has a plastic bumper, so it won't damage walls, furniture, or a person's leg, for that matter. I did manage, though, to get myself stuck against a wall.
"May I help you?" said Sanford Dickert, my driving instructor and escort at Willow [see photo at the beginning of this post]. Yes, please! He nudged me -- well, the robot -- and off I went.
I headed out to the EE lab to talk to Dallas Goecker, a Willow electrical engineer living in Indiana who, along with Curt Meyers, built the first Texai prototype. Goecker, as he does every workday, was present as a Texai.
So there we were: Two Texai talking to each other screen to screen.
Dallas Goecker, Texai co-creator, and I (inset, bottom left) meet face to face -- or screen to screen.
Goecker told me that being a robot became so natural for him that he sometimes can't recall whether he did something -- a discussion with a coworker, say -- as a person or as a robot.
So what is WIllow going to do with their 25 Texai? They're not selling them. So far they're doing some field tests at undisclosed sites and collecting feedback.
For a company focused on open source projects, I find they're a bit secretive about the Texai. My guess is the robot has commercial possibilities that they want to explore. Especially when you have a Google CEO showing it off at parties.
Or maybe they'll just give the robots away for free.
After the press conference, the party was to continue at a tent outside the building. I was told there was just one robot for reporters. John Markoff was in it and he was not getting out. Damn you New York Times!
Oh, well. I hung out inside with other guests and my Texai brothers. It was fun. The highlight was meeting people I'd been spoken via e-mail or on Twitter but had never met in person: BotJunkie's Evan Ackerman, GetRobot's Noriko Kageki, and Hizook's Travis Deyle -- some of the world's top robotics bloggers!
I even met some celebrities. As a huge MythBusters fan, it was great to chat with Tory Belleci, who for some reason wouldn't stop laughing at me, or the robot, or both [below].
My robotic existence wasn't perfect. More than once people had their backs facing me, though unintentionally, thinking I was just a piece of high-tech furniture. Other people felt clearly uncomfortable with a talking monitor and pretended I wasn't there.
Sometimes I couldn't hear people and vice versa. Twice I lost connection and had to log on again. And once my video feed froze and my face, I was later told, became a Francis Bacon portrait.
But overall it was a great experience. In the future, I see no reason why people wouldn't rely heavily on telepresence robots to attend meetings, interact with coworkers, and -- why not -- go partying.
Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.