The team occupying the offices next to mine is working on robots. Because the work is proprietary, I can’t reveal the details of what they are building. Plus I’m not sure what they are doing, but it looks like fun.

So instead, I’ve done some searches on the web for stories on self-propelled computing devices and found several interesting applications.

Building your own robots

The two most popular platforms for building robots are Lego Mindstorms and the iRobot Create platform. There are several open source development environments for writing controllers for robots such as TeamBots and ARIA. But of course, I am most familiar with Microsoft Robotic Developer Studio. A few sample projects using Lego Mindstorms and MSRDS is available at Coding4Fun.

LegoMindstorms   iRobotCreate

Lego Mindstorms (image from Lego) and iRobot Create (image from Wikipedia)

Creating maps using mobile sensors

Microsoft recently released a motion capture sensor for its Xbox video game console. The device, known as Kinect, uses a combination of an infrared distance sensor, two video cameras, and motion capture software to generate a 3D image of a person’s body. The data are then transmitted to the Xbox console. The Kinect has a USB port and can be attached to any computing device. Some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s personal robotics lab have mated the Kinect with an iRobot Create platform to create a mobile device that can generate a map of its surroundings in real-time. The robot also responds to hand signals. Check out the YouTube video (sorry no sound). The next step is to add the ability for the robot to fetch a ball and bark.


Playing fetch with an iRobot and Kinect . Video by MIT

Portable video conferencing device

Ever since the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, the promise of convenient video conferencing has been just that, a promise. There are several video conferencing devices at work, but they are rarely used because you can’t really see what’s going on in the other side of the meeting. On occasion I try to use Skype to set up a video conference, but it never works quite right. I guess I’m just an incompetent Luddite. Oh well.

But a company called HeadThere wants to try another tactic. Rather than making video conferencing a way to bring a room to you, it wants to take you to the room. It has a robot called the Giraffe that consists of a monitor that sits on top of a 5-foot stalk. The monitor displays the face of the remote participant. Meanwhile, the remote participant can rotate the monitor and tilt it, which also directs the camera, speaker, and microphone. The remote user can also move the robot around as shown in the video below. (The video is over 8 minutes long, but you get the idea within the first 30 seconds).


HeadThere mobile telepresence robot. Video still from HeadThere