When Sony shuttered its entertainment robotics division back in 2006, and after its Rolly (an egg-shaped robotic music player) was met with consumer apathy the following year, we thought it was safe to say the Japanese electronics giant was finished with robots for good. However, a recently published patent application suggests the company might be considering a come back of sorts.
U.S. patent application No. 20140074292 (titled "Robot device, method of controlling robot device, computer program, and program storage medium") describes a robot that looks an awful lot like the company's oft-teased but never delivered humanoid robot, albeit transformed from a biped to one that moves on wheels.
Most will likely remember the Aibo, Sony's robot dog, but fewer may recall its humanoid companion, dubbed the Sony Dream Robot (or SDR-3X) which was first shown in 2000. Over the course of the following years it was refined and renamed the QRIO (pictured right). Although a price was never officially given, sources claim the QRIO would have been a very expensive robot: about the cost of a luxury car. For that kind of money you'd expect it to be a technological marvel, which indeed it was, but it was never designed to be very practical.
Standing just 0.6 meters tall, QRIO wasn't going to do much of anything resembling actual work despite its ten tiny little individually actuated fingers. In contrast, the robot seen in the new patent has simpler gripper hands, which apparently would be capable of actually lifting objects from the floor. And by replacing legs with a wheeled base, the robot would be faster and more stable, while also being cheaper to produce and maintain. Whereas the QRIO had more than 40 degrees of freedom when it was last seen, the new robot features less than 30 DOF (see image below), but retains stereoscopic cameras and a fisheye camera on top of its head.
But here's the curious thing about the patent: its main focus is not the robot itself, but rather a self-diagnostic software system for cameras. It can tell the difference between a scratch or a bit of dirt on a camera lens by comparing multiple camera images (using the same method, it can also detect specks on the robot hand or object it is grasping). The patent begins with a blurb referencing Japan's rapidly aging society:
[...] there is an increasing need for a mechatronics device such as a robot aimed to carry housework and the nursing care for the human by communicating with a human and performing the work such as the grasp of an object mainly in aged care facilities and families with an aged person.
Most of this type of robot device are provided with a camera, detect or recognize an object in a working space based on an image taken by the camera, and perform the work such as the grasp. Therefore, when there is the dirt or the scratch on the lens of the camera, this significantly affects ability to detect/recognize an object, and this leads to deterioration in operation efficiency. When there is the dirt on a grasping unit of an object such as the hand, a grasped object gets dirty and this gives an adverse mental effect to someone who receives the object.
It's entirely possible the software described is intended for whatever new camera Sony is developing, but there's no doubt that it could prove invaluable for robots, as (clumsily) stated in the filing itself. For example, the robot would look at its hand from different angles to determine if it is dirty, since you don't want your robot picking up and spreading muck around. And if it is a speck of dirt on its camera, the robot can wipe it clean (which is what we assume the robot is doing in the illustration at the top).
Of course, until an official announcement from Sony we won't know either way, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be more than a little excited to see Sony make a return to robotics.