Hoaloha Robotics Developing Socially Assistive Hardware Platform

Originally a software company, Hoaloha is now developing its own home care robot

3 min read
Hoaloha Robotics Developing Socially Assistive Hardware Platform

Last we heard from Hoaloha Robotics was back in September of 2010, when the company was initially founded by Microsoft veteran Tandy Trower, who'd led the Microsoft Robotics Group for several years. According to some press at the time, Hoaloha was all about "developing a common interface and software that will make assistive robots easy to use and customize with applications, similar to the way Apple standardized the interface and application model for smartphones." In other words, software, not hardware, that'll enable service robots to assist people without robotics experience directly in their homes. It's now three years on, though, and it sounds like things have changed.

Trower posted a blog update yesterday, the first one in nearly a year. It doesn't give a lot of detail, but it does give some hints as to what they're up to. Here's the big news:

We did a major shift from our original strategy. Initially I had hoped to focus purely on the software development side of the solution for two reasons: 1) there seemed to be enough challenges here and 2) there appeared to be a number of companies already working on assistive care robots so it didn’t seem necessary to invest on the hardware side. ...[We] were not able to find a complementary company to work with.

However, because we had a strong conceptual model of what was required, we embarked on designing and building our own hardware platform, which we now not only have built, but have worked through several increasingly improved iterations.

There are no images of whatever Hoaloha has been constructing (the one at the top of this article is a three year old concept), but we know a few things. First, it's on wheels, and can't go up stairs. Second, it'll include speech recognition to interact with humans, although Trower isn't happy with the current state of the technology:

Fortunately, we have more at our disposal than relying on the speech recognizer being in charge of a conversation. Our robot has the benefit of knowing if a user is nearby and if the user is currently looking at the robot and for how long. It also tracks when the last conversation was, what it was about, and the history of other conversations with this user at this time of day.  That said, it is not yet a “solved problem” and we continue to work on improvements in our interaction model.

The final thing we know is that the robot will likely not include an arm at this time, because there's no way to add one and still hit Hoaloha's cost target, even considering what Rethink has managed to do with Baxter. From a blog entry after Baxter was announced:

Our price target is more between $5,000 and $10,000 and autonomous mobility is essential in our value proposition and user experience. So I believe we are still at least 5-10 years, likely longer, before robot arm technology evolves to a point that we can add arms to our robots, though Brooks’ work confirms that it is a reasonable expectation for the future.

Without a manipulator, whatever Hoaloha develops is going to have to rely on two things to be successful: user experience and low cost. And even if Hoaloha manages to knock both of those out of the park, the big question is whether there's a market for this sort of platform. Hoaloha (and many others) point to the rapidly increasing population of elderly humans, and statistics that show how cost effective a robot could be in the home if it could replace a human caretaker. What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not a robot (especially one without a manipulator) has enough to offer to function well as a caretaker replacement, and whether the people who are being taken care of are going to be cool with that.

Via [ Hoaloha ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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