Finally Android tablets are going to be able to live up to their names. At the recent Google I/O conference, Colin Angle of iRobot announced that the Boston based company would be teaming up with the search engine to get Android apps on the new AVA robot this year. AVA is a pedestal shaped bot on wheels which can autonomously navigate itself through a crowd without breaking anyone's ankles. While containing a great deal of its own functionality, AVA's head is a tablet computer. Any tablet computer. iPad2, Galaxy, you name it - iRobot claims they want AVA to be "head agnostic". Yet with the latest announcement, AVA is poised to be tested with Android applications first, and that's sure to make a big difference in the way it's adopted and developed. Check out AVA as it wheels around Google I/O in the videos below. Could this tablet-headed bot be the platform that finally brings personal robotics into the home on a grand scale?
Since they started showing off AVA at CES earlier this year, iRobot has gone out of its way to highlight how the bot's navigation skills make it people-friendly and human environment ready. In the following clip taken at Google I/O 2011, you'll see it move fairly quickly in a crowded environment. Top speed for AVA is supposedly two meters per second. Not bad at all. While all of this running around is head-independent (the processing is done in AVA's own body) it's unclear to me how much of this navigation is happening in real time thanks to its two Kinect sensors, and how much relies upon preprogrammed maps of the area.
In this next clip, the iRobot rep shows how AVA's LED lights allow it to blush after making contact with a human. Cute, but I'm more impressed with the automated hight adjustments in the neck.
In the end, Google I/O was largely about attracting developers to new projects, so it's no surprise that Colin Angle spent most of his time on stage evangelizing attendees to the AVA cause. Here's a video of his presentation wherein he pitches the idea that AVA will enable Android developers to make their apps physically mobile:
Of course, Angle is pushing an even bigger agenda: fulfilling the dreams of engineers everywhere by helping to create personal robots for the masses. It's a noble dream, one I agree with, and one that we've seen grow ever closer this year as more companies take up the cause; each with their own twist on the concept. RoboDynamics is producing Luna, a human height bot with sleek curves that will feature open source software and expandable hardware. Willow Garage has their own open source platform for the average consumer: TurtleBot (actually built upon an iRobot create platform) which they've just announced will be completely open source in both software and hardware. There's also the BiliBot project (another iRobot create adaptation) which is aimed at the same market.
As I mentioned when discussing Luna, each of these platforms has their own advantages. AVA offers some incredible flexibility by giving users a choice in heads, and while Android is first up to bat you can bet that the ipad (iOS) won't be too far behind. The tablet-as-head concept also allows developers to work on systems they already know, which could potentially accelerate AVA's growth considerably. That being said, AVA faces stiff competition. TurtleBot is completely open source, which could lead to rapid development and a dedicated user base. TurtleBot and Luna are also being offered to the general public already (though we're sure most of those who choose to purchase these platforms early are going to be developers). AVA is making its way to developers this year, but judging from Angle's comments it probably won't be given to consumers until 2013. Luna is by far the prettiest of the personal robots, and it stands tall - cosmetic factors, sure, but relevant to sales nonetheless. BiliBot is the only one of these robots with an actual gripping arm. Which, you know, is kind of freakin' important in our vision of a personal robot.
It's way to early to tell which of these platforms, if any, are going to succeed. I'm not even sure if they're all even in the same market since Luna is debuting at $3k, TurtleBot is open hardware, BiliBot is $1200, and iRobot won't give details on AVA's ultimate pricing.
What I can say is that it's really encouraging that we're seeing multiple entries into this field in 2011. While none of these bots are perfect, they are each a strong push towards real consumer level personal robots. These robots may compete, but they'll also be helping each other by drawing developers and customers into the marketplace. The open source software that will come out of this could also make these bots more synergistic than mutually exclusive. In other words, the fact that AVA isn't alone is a good thing. Good for you and me as robot consumers, and even good for iRobot as a robot producer. If everything goes perfectly I think that in 2015 personal robots may be where smart phones were in 2010 - not everyone has one, but most people want one, and they're getting to be actually helpful as opposed to just awesome to play with.
In order for that to happen, iRobot is going to have to keep drumming up enthusiasm among developers, they'll have to produce the robot at a reasonable price, and the tablet market will have to continue to thrive. Plenty of ways it could fail...but, man, if this succeeds things could get a lot more interesting for robot lovers out there. Good luck to AVA and all its competitors - whoever gives me a personal robot first wins my undying admiration. And some kisses. And whatever else you want, really. I'm kind of a whore for robots.
...as if you didn't know that already.
[image credit: iRobot]