Industrial robots, as a rule, are not at all safeto be around. With a few exceptions, most of them live in safety cages, or depend on a sophisticated combination of hardware, software, and sensors to make sure that they don't accidentally, you know, purposefully disembowel whatever human is within immediate purposeful disembowelment range. This not only precludes humans working with robots directly, but it also means that whenever the robots screw something up, you have to power down all of that infrastructure before you can safely get in there to fix anything.

We can fix all of this, all of it, with immersive virtual reality.

Johns Hopkins' Computational and Interactive Robotics Laboratory has been developing an Immersive Virtual Robotics Environment (IVRE) that "enables a user to instruct, collaborate and otherwise interact with a robotic system either in simulation or in real-time via a virtual proxy." In other words, you can do stuff with robots in virtual reality where it looks like the robot's right there, but it's actually nowhere near you. This is a technique that could be valuable not just for big scary disembowely industrial robots, but also for less scary robots doing things in environments where a human really wouldn't want to be.

Beyond just virtual reality, the IVRE also offers augmented reality, in which users can visually access information about the robot, the environment, and what the robot is trying to do. There's a huge amount of potential for extendability here, and it could make tasks like the DARPA Robotics Challenge both easier and more accessible for people without robotics training. For example, if you want a robot to open a door or turn a valve, imagine if you could just pop into a virtual environment, virtually grab the robot's hands, and just get it to do what you want it to do directly. It's a simple yet powerful idea, and with the pending (we hope) commercial availability of affordable immersive VR hardware like the Oculus Rift, it'll be a simple yet powerful idea that lots of people (and robots) will be able to take advantage of.

[ IVRE ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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