How much would you pay for a robot that can plug itself in, beat you in a game of pool, and fetch you a beer to soothe your wounded ego? Willow Garage is hoping the answer is $400,000. The Silicon Valley based robotics firm has officially begun selling its PR2 platform. After a preliminary announcement a few weeks ago, Willow Garage already has more interest than production capacity, but you can place a deposit and put your name in the queue for the next available PR2 to come off the assembly line. I had a chance to talk with Willow Garage representatives about PR2 sales, and what the development may mean for the future of the company. As a champion of open source robotics, Willow Garage's distribution of the PR2 may be more about sending open source ambassadors into the market than it is about generating profits. Those with proven dedication to the open source community may be getting a copy of the bot for just $280,000.
The PR2 has continually impressed me with its capabilities. It has a wide array of sensors and its grasping arms are top notch. But even more impressive than its hardware are the tasks the bot can perform with its open source code (all available via ROS). We've seen the bot fold towels, pick up trash, and play music as well as the autonomous recharging, pool sharking, and beer fetching we mentioned above. Each of these accomplishments are built off of earlier ROS software tools and each will enable further innovation in the open source community. When you try to place a value on the PR2 you have to include access to this community and the ability to help shape it. The growth of that community has largely been Willow Garage's focus up to this point. They even gave away 11 of their PR2 platforms to various research teams around the world just to advance the cause of open source robotics. That's a $4.4 million investment.
Talking with Willow Garage representatives, it certainly seems that they are looking to increase that investment. A few awards (no idea how many) will be offered to PR2 customers with a proven history to furthering the open source robotics community. Those awarded will be given a chance to purchase a PR2 for just $280,000. Willow Garage can't require anyone to use a purchased PR2 exclusively for open source research but the award is a nice way of encouraging customers in that direction.
30% is certainly a nice discount, but I'm not sure how many first wave customers would NOT qualify. Most are expected to be research teams, academic and industrial, looking to get their hands on a cutting edge platform with an ever expanding library of open source code (in the form of ROS). While some of these will undoubtedly be exploring open source for the first time, many will have some familiarity with it. Could Willow Garage sell more PR2s at $280k than at $400k? Possibly, but I doubt it. Picking who gets those awards may be difficult.
Willow Garage's sales of the PR2 may mark a (very gentle) shift towards profitability at the company. For the first time, I've gotten a better sense of the long term financial goals and possibilities for Willow Garage. Although they wouldn't specify exactly how much, the sales of PR2 at $400k will net the company a profit, (considering the aforementioned award size, '30%' does seem to suggest itself fairly readily, doesn't it?). The PR2, while utilizing open source software, is not open source itself. The module specs are all online, but you can't build a PR2 on your own (I'm not sure I've ever made this clear in past PR2 coverage, and I apologize if I misrepresented the PR2 as open hardware). As such, Willow Garage is likely to recoup some of its investments over the past few years with upcoming PR2 sales. Because so many of their prospective customers are in academia, Willow Garage is already in talks with the large institutions that distribute scientific funds via grants about how best to provide the robots to those researchers who want them most. We may see nations purchase PR2s and lease them out to research teams, though that's just speculation on my part.
Why would a country, or any research institution, make such an investment? Simply speaking, the PR2 is one of the most advanced robotic research platforms in the world, and the ROS library has the potential to accelerate progress in robotics considerably. Willow Garage isn't the only group sponsoring open source robots (URBI, CARMEN, and Orocos just to name a few) but it is one of the best funded. The Willow Garage YouTube channel, and their blog, is constantly announcing new innovations from their team of engineers. Many are too technical for us to regularly cover here on Singularity Hub, but you can check them out for yourself and see the steady advancements Willow Garage is making. With this dedication to robotics research, and with the 11 PR2 robots in major institutions around the world, Willow Garage is likely to be able to prove the success of its approach in the next few years.
Research teams may be lining up to purchase PR2s now and join the development of the next generation of robot software, but it's unclear when Willow Garage will start to generate a company-wide profit. Talking with their reps, they certainly still seem focused on long term goals over short term gains. There was indication that the company is moving towards finding profitable robotics applications, and to enable further research in that direction, but it may be a while before we know what any of those apps could be.
The more research teams that use the PR2 and generate code for ROS, the sooner we are likely to see robots that can actually perform the tasks we've dreamed about and seen in science fiction. My only concern (and it's a big one) is that no one, Willow Garage included, seems to be focused on providing this sort of accelerating research at the retail level. Where's the affordable personal robot that everyone can own? Maybe Willow Garage's development of the PR2 and ROS will enable others to pursue that market. In any case, I look forward to seeing how the first round of PR2 customers will expand open source robotics. I was excited about the 11 teams that received the free PR2s, now they may have dozens of colleagues working towards the same goals.
[image credits: Willow Garage]
[source: Willow Garage]