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High-End Robotics at Willow Garage: Notes from Design West, March 26

What can a quadriplegic do with a half-million dollar robot? On Monday, Willow Garage’s Steve Cousins told Bill Wong and me the story of an engineer who became paralyzed as the result a stroke and became interested in researching the robotic capabilities of Willow Garage’s PR2 platform.

Instead of fully-mobile researchers experimenting with what might be useful, why not ask someone who has a real need, along with the engineering background to grasp the possibilities what he would like to do? The answer is surprising and inspiring. And not a little amazing.

The engineer was left with the ability to move his eyes and twitch one finger, so evolving a user interface was the first challenge. The evolution from that milestone to doing something useful took a long time. It was three years before the engineer’s first success – scratching his own nose. He followed that up with shaving himself, using robot’s grippers.

Now here’s where the story takes a real Paul Harvey feel-good turn. Cousins told us what latest goal is: He wants to develop a comedy act – him and the robot, and take it on the road. For real. Cousins says he’s doing a lot of thinking about how to deal with hecklers.

Bill and I (and Engineering TV’s videographer Terry Knight) were at Willow Garage at my insistence. Bill and Terry were in the Bay Area for Design West conference, and I’d picked them up at the airport because I had a couple of robotics companies where I thought he’d enjoy talking to the CEOs and getting some video.

That worked out great at Willow Garage, which identifies itself as a robotics research lab and technology incubator with connections with universities, private companies, and government agencies. A lot of its work focuses on developing a common platform of hardware and software that is sufficiently advanced beyond commercial robotics to be of use to the research community. At its current stage of development that means ROS, an open source robot operating system, and the PR2 robotics development platform. Which are being used to develop robots that most of us would be comfortable describing as “semi-autonomous.” (The point is that it’s a real drag on research if you have to re-invent the wheel for each project. The PR2, and all of its 10,000 components, plus ROS, is accelerating a lot of university and DARPA research.)

Not that it’s all about the high end. If you look around Willow Garage, you will notice that many of the PR2s are wearing Xboxes as hats. Cousins says that the Xbox is cheap, as robotics hardware goes, and it provides a simple, yet subtle, common interface for robotics developers. If not every grad student can have her own robot, a lab-full of grad students can still share a common platform while developing code on the Xbox.

Videos of Bill’s interview with Willow Garage’s Steve Cousins should be up on the Engineering TV Website by Wednesday afternoon.

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