Friday, January 15

Texas Alpha Robot - Report #2

So, in the past month or so, progress has moved inexorably forward on Texas Alpha (or TA for short). Since the last report, our design partner (Function) has been hard at work making sure that all of the parts were in.

Off-the-Shelf Parts and Bad Timelines
One of the important aspects on this project has been to make sure the TAs were seen as "modifyable" - allowing anyone with an Allen wrench and some confidence to switch out parts and connect them to the robot whenever possible. The idea is to see what users would do with the robot, once given the source code (found here) and the physical system.

The method to do this was to use off-the-shelf parts while we made the custom parts from other outside sources. The funny thing is: you'd expect the custom parts to take much longer than the catalog parts. That is not the case, as we discovered. We had to wait insane amounts of time - and people seemed not to know what one hand was doing from the other. Suffice it to say, next time - we might be considering other components for our next TA build.

From the Ground Up
Once we got the parts in house, the build of the subassemblies has been fast and furious. As you can see from the slideshow, we have at least two of the TAs built and are replicating them quite rapidly. The funniest part of this effort is the fact that we might not have enough storage for all 25 of the TAs in the office as we are building them. But, we have a number of eager people wanting to work with them in the Bay Area - and beyond.

Dallas, Curt and our intern Tom Grimes (from Purdue) along with the other members of the Texas/WG/Function team have been cranking the Allen wrenches, and building parts left and right. And the software is becoming more of a reality with feedback from our growing test customer base.

Why are you writing about this?
Well - one of the things I am interested in - is hearing your thoughts on this new robot. Now, to be clear, the concept is not new. Take a look at IvanAnywhere, a hilarious and functional system being used by a software engineer for SQL Anywhere in Canada. And you can see a low-cost, fully-operational system called the TiLR (pronounced Tyler) which is being tested and was in use by google's Lunar X Prize Team for remote collaboration amongst groups. And another player in San Jose with HeadThere has been showing their product for some time. And another team in North Carolina called SuperDroid has developed a similar-looking telepresence robot called the RP2W (okay, sounds almost like watching Star Wars, yeah?).

But my question to you is: what do you think? Why do you think this technology has not made it in the marketplace today? I mean, most of these solutions are almost two years old - and I assume that the concept of a movable video system/screen is not new and revolutionary. Why hasn't this concept taken off beforehand?

And with the scores of videoconferencing companies out there - why hasn't videoconferencing evolved further than a separate room or a webcam with grainy pictures?

Any thoughts? Any insights? All are welcome. And, if you yourself know someone who is interested in the project - please send them to me as well. It is sanford AT willow garage dot - well, you know.

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