Qbo – The Tiny Open Source Robot Wants to Invigorate Human-Machine Interaction

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Francisco Paz (aka TheCorpora) has released new information about his open source robot Qbo. The diminutive wheeled bot stands only 456mm (18 inches) tall but is packed with sensors, including two high definition web cameras in its eyes. TheCorpora plans on using Qbo’s stereoscopic vision to let it react to people and objects in a realistic manner with face tracking, depth perception, and gesture detection. The robot will also be capable of speech recognition and synthesis. If all goes according to plan, the Qbo could serve as a versatile open source platform, allowing programmers to explore and perfect the ways in which humans and robots interact.

Qbo will come with some impressive hardware. Besides the high definition webcams there will be a MiniITX board with Intel Atom CPU and NVidia Ion graphics. The robot will be capable of Wifi and Bluetooth control and will have an associated API and web control panel. Its face will be expressive with a 20 LED mouth, a nose, and eyes that can move and be covered by eyelids. Ultrasound sensors will help the robot avoid obstacles as it wheels around.

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click for high resolution

What’s all this hardware going to be used for? That’s entirely up to the people who buy the hardware and use it as open source robotics platform. But TheCorpora does have some ideas of how the bot may be applied. According to his blog, Paz has spent the last five years working on the Qbo concept. He laments the lack of true innovation in robotics – the focus on mechanics instead of real autonomy. Referencing projects like iCub, Paz seems to want Qbo to serve as a testing grounds for robot learning – a way to improve and perfect human-robot interaction. He mentions that Qbo will be able to recognize gestures, enabling the robot to comprehend sign language and act as a dictation machine for the deaf and mute (via speech synthesis). It may also serve as a conversation partner, utilizing a chatterbot-like approach. Presumably users will be able to expand on these ideas, using Qbo sensors and advanced recognition capabilities to discover new applications.

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Paz & Qbo. I really hope he brings his concept to fruition. A smaller scale open source platform is a great idea.

I firmly believe that open source robot platforms have the potential to revolutionize the industry just as Paz hopes. Willow Garage’s PR2 Beta Program, which will give away 11 of their $440k robots to research teams across the globe, is a good example of this concept in action. As amazing as the PR2 Beta Program is, however, it can’t cater to every potential developer. TheCorpora and the Qbo have a chance to do what Willow Garage might not: provide individual robot enthusiasts and open source hackers the opportunity to work on advanced systems on their own.

I am worried about hype, however. As cool as Qbo may be, it hasn’t really made a proper debut, and there’s no telling how long it may take for Paz to actually implement all of his ideas, let alone sell the robot en masse. This hasn’t stopped the robot from being prominently featured on the usual suspects of tech blogs (see the article on Linux for Devices to get an idea of how the story spread). Will the Qbo actually materialize? I hope so. TheCorpora does state that the robot is “coming soon” but without a firm launch date or pricing, it’s unclear when Paz’s vision for a shared platform will arrive. Videos of the robot, also “coming soon”, will give us a better idea of how far along the robot is in its development. Until then we’ll just have to look at Qbo’s amazing specs and cross our fingers. A smaller scale open robot platform for human-robot interaction is a great idea. If TheCorpora can’t make it happen I really pray someone else will.

[image credits: The Corpora]
[source: TheCorpora/Qbo Blog
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