Up close and personal with the Robot Petting Zoo

What's more fun than a barrel of monkeys? A robot petting zoo, of course!

Not that anyone was actually petting the robots on display at Device Design Day, an annual conference for pros who design software and hardware for mobile devices and other consumer electronics. But there was lots of interaction going on between humans and robots.

The petting zoo gave robotics firms and independent developers a chance to show off their latest projects. Here are some of the highlights:


The cute star of the show was TurtleBot, a programmable mobile robot kit from personal robot maker Willow Garage. Built around the open-source TurtleBot SDK based on the Robot Operating System (ROS), the kit includes an iRobot Create base, an Asus 1215N netbook, a Microsoft Kinect 3D sensor device and some specialized structural hardware. You're meant to program TurtleBot yourself, but it's fine to get a leg up from the community of ROS developers.

At the petting zoo, the approximately 2-foot-high TurtleBot was most entertaining when in "follow" mode. As Willow Garage research scientist Leila Takayama noted, "TurtleBot likes legs" and consistently rolled toward the closest pair, which was rather amusing when they were attached to an unsuspecting human who hadn't been paying attention to the bot. 

Secret Knock Gumball Machine

Independent contractor Steve Hoefer showed off two projects at the petting zoo.

First up was the Secret Knock Gumball Machine, which requires mortals to knock the appropriate sequence on a touchpad armed with a piezoelectric sensor. When a microcontroller connected to the sensor "hears" the correct timing, it turns a servomotor that releases a gumball.

Everyone I saw figured out the secret knock on the first try, but most declined the reward, leaving Hoefer with a pocketful of gumballs.

Project Tacit haptic glove

Hoefer's more serious robotic tool was Project Tacit, a haptic feedback glove meant to be worn by the blind. The glove uses sonar to measure the distance to nearby objects and applies gentle pressure to different areas of the wrist so the wearer knows where obstacles are.

Hoefer told me the glove is still very much a work in progress, but it's exciting to see how haptic technology might someday be used.

Anybots QB personal avatar

Another treat was the Anybots QB personal avatar, a robot on wheels with a video screen located at eye level. Meant as a telecommuting tool, the robot is controlled remotely via a Web browser. It shows live video from your webcam, so you can drive it around the office and interact with others while you're miles away.

Device Design Day attendees had great fun speaking with the person driving the bot, who was sitting at her desk in South Carolina while conversing face to face in San Francisco.

It's amazing to see how far robotics have progressed these days. I can't wait to what robot makers come up with for next year's robot petting zoo.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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