Robot Guide Premiers in Shopping Mall in Spain (video)

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REEM-H1-robot-guide
REEM-H1 is ready to show your around.

The REEM-H1 is the kind of robot guide your grandma would love, it escorts you where you need to go and will even carry your bags. Developed by PAL Robotics in Spain, the REEM-H1 recently made its debut at the Glories shopping center in Barcelona. Over the course of one very long day it answered questions, gave directions, and showed people how to get to various stores in the large facility. Visitors could query and control the robot via a touchscreen in its torso. PAL hopes to commercialize the robot guide and have it serving in museums, hospitals, and restaurants. It may even have applications in telepresence, babysitting, and surveillance. Check out the REEM-H1 as it wheels around and makes itself useful in the two demo videos below.

A lot of companies have worked on getting robots ready to serve as receptionists and guides – Kokoro’s iFairy, and ASORO’s Olivia being good examples. The Santander Bank headquarters outside of Madrid has a fleet of robot guides (the SIGA bots) that demonstrate how a full scale system might work. There are dozens of SIGAs ready to show visitors to their destinations quickly. REEM-H1 stands out mainly because it can carry bags as well as show visitors around. It has two human-like arms and a baggage platform in the rear. In the videos below you can see how the robot moves fairly smoothly, even through a moderately crowded space. The days of the robot bell-hop seem to be drawing closer.

Honestly, I’m not thrilled with the H1’s humanoid shape, but I am intrigued by the fact that it can serve as a porter. To me a robot guide just needs to be a screen on wheels – as seen with in the SIGA bots at Santander. In fact, most of us probably don’t even need a robot guide at all. We need a map with simple instructions. Touchscreen kiosks already fulfill those needs now. But robots like the REEM-H1 might still be very useful for those who need both a guide and an assistant. I think such robots are going to be popular among the elderly and those with limited sight or mobility. These are generally people who might also appreciate a helping hand with their bags as they are lead to their destination. The ultimate version might be an automated golf cart that you could sit in as it took you where you needed to go.

REEM-H2-robot-guide
Coming soon: the REEM-H2. Better voice recognition and a fancy new shell.

While there’s no golf cart robot in the works, PAL is innovating the REEM-H series. Even as the H1 debuted in the shopping center, the PAL team was hard at work developing the next version, the H2. According to their blog, the company hopes to commercialize the H series soon, but its unclear if the H1 or H2 will be the first bot to hit the market. The two will be very similar: Both will have stereoscopic cameras, microphones, laser & ultrasound guidance, and accelerometers and gyroscopes for positioning. Both will be around 200 lbs (90 kg), about five and a half feet tall (1.7 m), and have a battery life near eight hours. The H2’s payload will be about 70 lbs (30kg) more than enough for most bags. H2 should also have more advanced communications skills, able to interpret spoken requests clearly, though it will still have the touchscreen interface.

Even if you need it to carry your bags, these REEM-H robots might be overbuilt. Why do they have arms exactly? Probably because they were developed by a company that has been pursuing advanced humanoid robots. PAL’s REEM-A and REEM-B were full scale walking bipeds that could locate and pick up objects with its four-fingered hands. It’s clear that a lot of the hardware innovations from REEM-A and REEM-B made it into the H series even if the legs were swapped out for wheels. PAL Robotics seems like a company to watch in the years ahead. They appear committed to robotics research and were even the sponsors for the recent Orocos Real Time Toolkit conference. (Though it’s unclear if any of the REEM robots actually use Orocos RTT). We’ll be keeping track of these guys from now on to see what they get up to.

And of course we’ll continue to track robot guides in general. It will be interesting to see how we’ll adopt robot guides in the years ahead. There are plenty of places where they make sense – I’ve gotten lost in enough labyrinthine buildings to attest to that – but humans have been making do without such guides for years. I suspect that it will take something like automated porters (such as the REEM-H series) to make robot guides more popular than talking kiosks with touchscreens. Ultimately I see us having our own robot companions that travel with us that would simply tap into local maps and inventory guides when we enter a store/mall/hospital/hotel/etc. For those who need a helping hand such robots could be a load-baring cart with arms, but for others they might simply be a more sophisticated smart phone. Who knows, robot guides might never gain popularity at all if Google Maps starts to include the inside of stores. Either way I look forward to the day when it doesn’t take me an hour to find my way out of an IKEA or Home Depot.

[image credits: PAL Robotics]
[source: PAL Robotics, PAL Press Release (Spanish PDF), PAL Blog]