The future is Nao (maybe)

Nao is Alderbaran premier developmental robot.
Nao is Alderbaran's premier developmental robot.

If there were two shining promises made about what we would have in the future, they were the flying car and the household robot. Well here we are in the 2010’s and I commute on a bike and have to clean up after myself (the horror!). The Nao robot could be a huge step forward in correcting one of these problems.

Alderbaran robotics, the creators of the Nao, started with an audacious goal: create an autonomous, affordable, and feature-rich consumer robot. How autonomous and affordable Nao will be are open questions, but the robot is definitely feature-rich. And it could be coming to a robotics lab near you. Alderbaran will be sending out development units throughout 2010 and Nao will have open source software. Putting business aside, let’s not forget that the physical capabilities of the robot are simply dazzling. Check out the classic Nao video after the jump.

The bot also packs a pretty amazing amount of hardware into its 23in. tall frame. It has enough servo motors to give it 25 degrees of motion, several microphones, stereo speakers, two video cameras, built in wi-fi, and a CPU that allows it to do facial recognition and text-to-speech translation.

Wi-Fi gives the Nao some of its cooler capabilities, such as using the robot as a movable tele-presence. Say you couldn’t make it home for the holidays- you could use the Nao to walk around mom’s house and look at and talk to whoever you wanted. This also has applications in security or even child care (if you’re that damn lazy).

However, using only the built in software, Nao risks being something of a gimmick. For instance, how many times is patting the touch sensor on top of the robot’s head going to be entertaining? In the video, the Nao is shown picking up a rubber chicken and then throwing it in the trash. While I could see myself and a few friends getting some amusement watching Nao throw all of my things into the nearest trash bin or potted plant, I have a feeling that it would quickly get old.

Alderbaran is very upfront about this issue, saying that they do not know what the “killer app” for their product is yet, but that the surest way to find out will be to bring it to market and let users experiment. This is where Nao’s most important feature- open source software, could save it. This year, Alderbaran will be releasing a few hundred robots to dedicated programmers who are interested in robotics, but the ability to re-program Nao will eventually be available to anyone. They have even created a simple graphical block interface that will allow people without programming experience to create new behaviors.

Given the recent advances in voice recognition and video recognition, the potential behaviors people could create for this bot are amazing. The processing capabilities needed to tell a robot to fetch you your drink off the counter are probably within the realm of what your CPU could handle today. This leads me to think of a better use of the Wi-Fi embedded within Nao- why not use it to offload the processing duties to your personal computer? Backing up the stylish good looks and physical capabilities with the far more powerful (and upgradeable) CPU in your computer could make for a killer combo. In correspondence with the company, I’ve been told that Nao will be capable of doing exactly that.

With all these features, one big issue remains- price. While there has been no official word on pricing for the consumer bot, the laboratory version was going for $15,000 in 2008. This would kick Nao out of the “I work for a good company” market and into the “I sold a good company” market. However, with their stated goal of building an ‘affordable’ robot for the general public it will be interesting to see what they bring the price down to, and what features, if any, they give up before the general release.

The release date is another concern. Although initially scheduled for late 2008, I’ve been told they are now aiming for early 2011. Hopefully they won’t take much longer, my floor isn’t going to clean itself.

nao on amazon
There's only one Nao you can currently buy on Amazon. Boo!
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