I was able to attend the Robo Business 2013 conference in Santa Clara, CA.
Well I didn’t physically attend, I actually Beamed in...
It was a fantastic experience for both the Beam robot users and the conference attendees. There was even a two-hour session for Beams only, allowing us to roam freely without the crowds, which was a little tight at some points.
There was one moment when I did panic. Not wanting to knock over a food tray or crash into a display, an object the fell directly in front of my camera. I didn’t hear anything crash and nobody seemed to run or shout at me. There was enough peripheral vision for me to backup a bit and still not seeing any commotion that I had caused, I made out the blurred image of a balloon that had wandered into my path. My panic quickly subsided and off I went, steering clear of any other suspicious displays or curtains that might make for another awkward situation.
While driving around, I met with several vendors like Rethink Robotics as they displayed Baxter. I was also able to speak with Unbounded Robotics, who earlier in the week unveiled the UBR-1, a cousin of the PR2. Since the redirection of Willow Garage, many of the staff there have transitioned to Unbounded. The UBR-1 is a smaller, cheaper, and better designed version of the PR2, which was originally designed around 2007. A lot of cost was able to be taken out simply by using newer sensors. The experience of having designed and worked with the PR2 also allowed for a significant amount of knowledge to be transferred in the second generation. The UBR-1 is less than 1/10th the cost of the $400,000 PR2 and should allow a lot more researchers and roboticists to study more human robot interactions and develop useful applications. I immediately see this as a game changer for telepresence in an office building, as now you can press a button for the elevator door. See the video below...
There were also several navigation companies along with the industrial type standard robots like ABB, Yaskawa, and Universal Robotics. One recent entry on the consumer side that caught my eye was 5 Elements Robotics. Based out of NJ, their follow-me bot, called Budgee™, is a very simple design that, well, follows you around. Whether it be at home, the store, or a museum, it can carry up to 50lbs with a two hour continuous run-time. That number will likely go higher, unless you don’t plan on stopping at all for those two hours. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before an adapter is made to hold a tablet in place and allow some telepresence. You can expect to see him out and about in mid-2014, but they are taking pre-orders now.
When speaking with many of the vendors, they were enthusiastic about Beams roaming the floor. Speaking with one vendor, they commented on how he was able to actually reach more people with them. At one point during the day, he had gentleman from India and a woman from the Netherlands in his booth. It really brought home how powerful telepresence can be. Robotics is still a niche within the electronics industry much like PC’s back in the 80’s, but we’re expecting some serious growth in the next decade. Just the last five years have brought about some exciting developments. Between the cost of sensors plummeting and processing power increasing, the possibilities expand each day.
While the Robo Business conference is a relatively small conference, nothing near the size of the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, everyone you meet there will have a direct application and presence in the robotics industry. I did find it curious that the Beam was the only telepresence robot at the conference. There are plenty located in California, particularly the Bay Area, many of which we have written about. I would expect over the next two-three years you’ll see a lot more consumer focused service robots being displayed and likely wandering around the conference.
Conferences and shows like this are great. I think the single best moment of the conference for me was starting a conversation with Scott Hassan, the current CEO of Suitable Technologies. It was great to discuss some of the business with him as they have taken some great strides since the introduction of the Beam last September. As the conversation drew on, Scott drifted out of my frame of view, only to show back up a few moments later with none other than Dallas Goecker on a Beam from his home in Indiana. Dallas was the engineer who developed Texai, the predecessor of the Beam. Through our impromptu Beam conference, Dallas showed me and Scott around his lab as we talked about robots and many of the tools he was using like his vintage oscilloscopes. The vintage ones are apparently unrivaled in their accuracy as compared to modern ones.
Suitable Technologies did a wonderful job supporting the event and if I can’t physically make it to Robo Business 2014 in Boston, I’m really hoping that an option like this will be available from either Suitable Technologies or local companies like iRobot, VGo, or Bossa Nova, hint-hint. I actually can’t wait to see who will launch a new company or product. In the meantime we hope to report on RoboBusiness Europe in May of 2014 to see the latest developments happening in the industry over there.