A Night Out with the Willow Garage Robots – New Info From the Press Dinner

The PR2 caught the philosophical mood of the informal press dinner at Willow Garage.

When a robot asks you out on a date, say yes. Wednesday night, Willow Garage hosted a small press dinner at their offices in Silicon Valley. The young company looking to jumpstart the personal robotics industry wasn’t making formal announcements, but they gave myself and the half dozen or so other attending journalists a rare glimpse into their visions for the future. There was also really good food. What do the next few years hold for Willow Garage? Spin-off companies, mid-priced platforms, and tons more open source robotics. Read below to see some of the many cool concepts that CEO Steve Cousins and Open Source Development Director Brian Gerkey batted about over dinner.

Willow Garage set out to accelerate the field of personal robotics. Four years ago, they thought the elbow of the exponential curve of development was 10-15 years away. Now, Cousins is willing to guess it could be as little as 5 years away. In other words, Willow Garage thinks they are making a positive impact on the industry and could see the enormous fruits of their labor relatively soon.

A team of developers working on Project Texai, a telepresence robot with a simple design and a huge display screen, has officially spun off from Willow Garage. The new company, Suitable Technologies, is headed by Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan, and adopted “quite a few engineers” from its parent firm to get started. We’ll hear more about this group as they bring Project Texai to market, but expect big things from this first proprietary and distinctly profit-minded venture from Willow Garage.

Anticipating integration with Android, this TurtleBot got a hacked holder for a tablet.

Remember that amazing towel folding routine performed by the PR2 robot living in UC Berkeley? Well, Gerkey says that they’ve successfully been able to port that program into a general demonstration Willow Garage performed on the road at ICRA 2011. Gerkey pointed out that while open source robotics has promoted the easy exchange of code, reproducing experiments is still a problem in the scientific/engineering community. Getting the towel folding parameters up and running was a significant achievement, and one that will hopefully be repeated across many more robot experiments in the future.

The Robot Operating System continues to impress. Back in November we reported that the library of open source robotics code had been growing exponentially over the course of its three year history. Gerkey says that trajectory is still on course. There are now around 3000 packets of code on ROS, nearly double what there was in November! There are roughly 100 depositories on ROS (of which Willow Garage is hosting about 12). Gerkey estimates there are about 30 ROS developers directly associated with Willow Garage, with about 1000 people on the user’s list. Clearly ROS is a thriving community.

Willow Garage has been working closely with the Google Cloud Robotics team, which has a few of the new WG TurtleBots to play with. Gerkey and Cousins are excited about the integration of Android and ROS, and we even saw a hacked mount to put a tablet on a TurtleBot. While TurtleBot won’t be sold out of the US, the robot is officially open source hardware, meaning anyone can build it. Already, Gerkey says there are enthusiasts looking to establish an EU version of the robot.

There are 30+ PR2 robots in the world, about 9 at Willow Garage, 11 given away for free. Of those that were sold, only one paid the full $400,000 price tag. The rest took advantage of the 30% discount afforded to those groups which follow strict open source guidelines.

Could there be room in the Willow Garage family for a mid-range robot?

Looking to the future, Cousins casually mentioned that Willow Garage will eventually find a middle ground between their research platform juggernaut, the PR2, and their enthusiast level platform, the TurtleBot. You can do some really amazing things with a $400,000 PR2, and some pretty neat stuff with a $1200 TurtleBot. But there’s a huge range to explore in there. Hopefully Willow Garage will find a sweet spot where they can create a new tier of robot that will capture the interest of a whole new market, while simultaneously continuing to attract developers to open source robotics.

As always, visiting Willow Garage was as fun as it was interesting. There’s a lot of vitality coming out of their Silicon Valley office, especially considering how many of their residents aren’t human. Good luck, guys, and try not to wait too long before you give us some really juicy announcements.

[image credits: Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub]

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