We just watched Willow Garage launch the beginning of their PR2 Beta Program, sending 11 advanced robots to live with research teams all over the globe in the hopes of fostering innovation. This is a big investment, $4.4 million in robots alone, not to mention the extensive support the company will provide. Not only that, but every aspect of this project is open source, hardware and software, meaning that Willow Garage doesn't have proprietary rights to any of the advancements that will arise from ongoing research. Are they crazy? Like a robotic fox. Willow Garage is going to use the PR2 Beta Program to try and jump start the robot revolution. And they're going to succeed.
We've seen many impressive robots here at the Hub. Asimo, Hubo, Petman...each with vast potential to perform human-like feats of skill. With the PR2, however, Willow Garage isn't just building a great robot, they're building a new platform for innovation. Researchers will be able to use the open source hardware, and the open source software (ROS), to fuel their own endeavors. Why spend all this time and effort into building the robotics community as a whole? Willow Garage wants to create a true personal robot - a device that could do for individuals what automation has done for factories. It's an absurdly ambitious goal. Here are five reasons why Willow Garage might be the ones to make it happen.
1. Willow Garage is putting an end to re-inventing the wheel. Robot research teams have two major hurdles: software and hardware. In order to innovate one, they first have to create the other. The symbiotic relationship between the robot (hardware) and the programming (software) causes most institutions to custom build both. Their software is only made to work on their hardware and vice versa. If an engineer wants to build off another team's efforts they have to spend months or years developing or porting over the work to their own software and hardware systems. Everyone has to re-invent the wheel. Willow Garage is taking an open source approach to end all that. They've helped create ROS, the open source Robot Operating System, a joint software endeavor that allows researchers from all over the world to contribute to a shared library of robot algorithms. They've also created a great open source hardware platform - the PR2 Beta. It has all the sensors, manipulating arms, and versatility that a researcher could want. We don't have to re-invent the wheel anymore, in fact, Willow Garage is giving away wheels! All they ask is that each research team share their experience in learning how to build the proverbial car.
2. Willow Garage has the funding. No I don't have access to their accounting books, but trust me on this one. Founder Scott Hassan, who also started eGroups and was one of the silent names behind Google, probably has the personal funds to keep Willow Garage going for many years to come all by himself. But he'd never have to. I just spent hours seeing how Silicon Valley, with its massive venture capitalism funds, loves Willow Garage. The number of Google millionaires lining up to dance with robots at the PR2 Beta Program launch event was impressive. The scale of the evening alone was an indication that Willow Garage is secure in its finances and ready to spend what's necessary to make their vision come true. Enough said.
3. Willow Garage has the interest from the robotics research community. ROS has 24 major research institutions contributing code on a regular basis. The number of robots that use the ROS library is growing. When Willow Garage offered 10 PR2 robots for free, 78 full length proposals were submitted. The applicant pool was so impressive they decided to give away 11 bots instead. These 'winners' aren't fly by night operations. We're talking MIT, USC, Berkeley, Stanford, University of Tokyo, Bosch - Bosch! The huge corporation went open source last year and is a big supporter of the PR2 Beta Program. Some of the best robot engineers in the world want to work with Willow Garage and ROS. That interest is going to fuel their open source personal robot mission.
4. Willow Garage is community first, personal gain second. The whole company is focused on how they can work with the global community to advance the field of robotics as a whole. This is largely expressed in the open source licensing of everything they do, and their insistence that everyone who uses the PR2 follow the same open sharing. Even more than that, it's apparent in their attitudes. Keenan Wyrobek, Co-Director of Personal Robotics, freely admitted that other groups are working on PR2 like robots, and may soon make them cheaper and perhaps even better. He liked this idea. He wants other groups to innovate, to expand, and to improve the field of robotics. It's cooperation first, competition later.
5. Willow Garage gets 'It'. Ask a Willow Garage employee about sales or commercialization, and likely as not they'll say something like, "well, we're really focused on five or ten years out..." or "that's not the concern right now." Most start ups have funding, try to make some sort of deliverable item, and if they succeed they get more funding and start generating revenue. That's just not Willow Garage's game plan. They're in it for the long haul - the farsighted goals. It's not about short term profits, it's about the long term feasibility of personal robotics. That attitude is rare and refreshing. It's going to take vision, heaping loads of it, to work towards a goal that will take years to accomplish. Willow Garage has that vision, in spades.
For these reasons and more, Willow Garage is poised to make a huge impact in the robotics research community, to transform it into a personal robotics industry. We'll be watching these guys closely, keeping track of the successes and failures on that path. In the meantime, enjoy this video from Willow Garage, touting the power of the PR2 and highlighting their vision for the PR2 Beta Program. Great stuff.
[image credits: Willow Garage]
[source: Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program Launch event]