Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Future of Robotics...

...is in Japanese hands. I mean, the Dutch have Lego Mindstorms (which, BTW, Lego just came out with a new generation of Mindstorms. Looks cool!), and the Americans have Robosaurus, but the Japanese are the drivers of the robotics field. In the game Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation (now also MGS: Twin Snakes for the Gamecube) Otacon mentioned that the Japanese were the first to develop bipedal autonomous robots, and that anime was the reason. This is true actually. Only in Japan is the culture and economy such that this things can be made. And though some people might try to deny it, shows like Gundam are the inspiration for today's designers. When I was building one of my robot models a few years back, my brother Paul looked at it and stated that it was cool, but such a thing could never walk under it's own power. He then launched into a discussion about how impossibly complex the human body is, and how many functions were required for someone to simply stand in one place. Now, Paul has never really got interested in the field of robotics, and I believe he was thinking in terms of static walkpaths, where the movements are preprogrammed, and though the computer is programmed to respond to all sorts of circumstances, no one can plan for everything. That is why the Japanese then made one that can.

Sony, in 1997 built their SDR-1X, a bipedal robot built to a similar purpose as the AIBO, namely to promote human-robot interactivity. This design they continued to test and improve, until in 2001 they publicized the SDR-3X, which had the ability to make up it's walkpath on the fly. Gone was the obligitory jerky motions and lack of true improvisation, this robot could cope with any obstacle of up to 10mm and any angle up to 10 degrees. Now all Sony needed was to make the people like it. Thus in 2003 Sony completed their SDR-4X, named QRIO. (compare the QRIO specs to the SDR-3X!) This robot was designed to function in a household, alongside the pets, children and adults. The QRIO was built with safety in mind, with pinch-proof joints, and complex damage prevention techniques. When this guy is bumped, it moves with the motion to keep balance. When falling is imminent, tuck and roll baby! It then preforms a through systems self check as it gets up. After that, it procedes to track you down and deliver a brutal smackdown to you for your cruel act to a multi-thousand $ machine. The QRIO has stereoscopic vision for depth perception, and can recognize people by face and voice. It can also respond to their voices with high tech voice communication software. All of this is being done realtime inside the unit, there is no external unit. When in need of charging, the QRIO procedes to it's charging station, where it docks itself, charges, then gets up to interact some more. Google Video has clips of QRIO in action.

When I first started talking about the QRIO, I was going to compare it to Honda's clunky P2 robot, which got a whole lot of publicity, because it could walk up and down stairs, though in fact, the biggest achievment was that it didn't look quite so much like a walking refrigerator as the P1. However, in looking into it, I discovered that Honda has a new ASIMO, which actually looks like a big QRIO. The ASIMO, however, is about 4 feet tall, built for human assistance, not entertainment. There are some really good background materials in the History section, and the media section has cool videos. Honda is really happy that their robot can run four times faster than the QRIO. They don't mention that it's because the ASIMO is four times taller, but hey.

All in all, I think it's easy to say that Japan is leading this robo-revolution. For further proof that America is kinda behind, take a gander at the high technology SARCOS humanoid. Sure, it's just a chunk of mechanics that's hard-mounted to a frame that houses it's computers, doesn't really look cool, and can't actually do much that the Japanese bots can do, but remember this: when it comes down to the line, SARCOS's machine can play air hockey. Don't mess!

PS. This just in! If this link works, there's an updated QRIO that has increased wrist articulation! Check the Video 3 link. Coolness!

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