Don’t be glum, the Willow may be about ready to leave the Garage
By Tom Green
February 12, 2013
Born in 2006, Willow Garage has for the past six years stayed true to its stated reason for being: “To push the frontiers of robotics, both scientifically and commercially…with the unique goals of impact first, return on capital second, with the strong belief that success in the first goal (impact) would provide plenty of opportunities to excel at the second (return on capital).”
Goal number one is complete and in the books; it’s time now for the second goal to take center stage. And the timing is perfect.
The personal robot/co-robot revolution is on and the Rethinks and Universals of the world are pushing out products, overcoming objections to robots and humans coexisting at work and play, and generally setting the stage whereby TV programming like 60 Minutes can instantly jack up the respiration rates of anyone with a job. Willow Garage needs to play in that space, and it looks like its readying to do just that.
Over the past six years, Willow Garage has been plenty busy, spinning off seven companies—more than one for each year of its existence:
- hiDOF, Inc.,a software consulting company.
- Industrial Perception Inc., working on integrating perception technology with industrial robots.
- OpenCV, an open source computer vision and machine learning software library built to provide a common infrastructure for computer vision applications and to accelerate the use of machine perception in commercial products.
- Open Perception Foundation, with a mission to advance the development and adoption of open source software for 2D/3D processing of sensory data, for the benefit of the industrial and research communities.
- Open Source Robotics Foundation - OSRF is an independent non-profit formed to support the development, distribution, and adoption of open source software for use in robotics research, education, and product development.
- Redwood Robotics, a joint venture between Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI.
- Suitable Technologies, creating an innovative new remote presence product.
That, ladies and gentlemen, takes a lot of energy while still meeting payroll for fifty staff, which takes lots of largesse and big cash.
Along the way, Willow Garage also birthed the PR2 (together with fifty other PR2 siblings); then gifted a bunch of them away and sold another bunch for less than cost, all of which didn’t net Willow Garage much more than the thanks and gratitude of researchers and developers everywhere or, through collaborations like that of Robots for Humanity, quite heroically give to a fellow man like Henry Evans, mute and quadriplegic, a new lease on life and a reason to believe again.
As POPSCI’s Rebecca Boyle writes: “It would be hard to overstate the value of PR2 to robotics researchers in the past few years—rather than continually building new robots with new software, researchers can use one platform and one universal OS. That allows much more freedom to teach robots how to do things, not just be robots.”
All of that is true about the PR2, but I still wouldn’t let it into my home, and I’m probably not alone in that feeling.
The PR2 may have fine qualities, attributes and be ahead of its time, but it looks like a hulking refrigerator with arms (very expensive arms), which give off the sense of it being over engineered and over built, which, if true, means that the good people who built it care little or know little about engineering and design for commercial success.
To do that, Willow Garage needs to stop the show, take a deep breath and then re-invent itself for the marketplace. The company’s recent press release could well be heralding just such a stop-and-start-again maneuver.
And who really knows what’s in store for a commercial, marketplace-driven Willow Garage? Two years ago in an interview, senior Willow researcher, Kurt Konolige, was asked if the company had commercial aspirations, to which he responded:
“We actually are developing commercial products, although that isn’t currently our immediate goal. There are two aims to our business model. First and foremost, we want to accelerate the development of robotics technologies by creating a series of open standards and seed the field. But we also want to create useful and profitable product lines, and these product lines may incorporate proprietary IP.
“We have developed a telepresence platform called the Texai. This partially autonomous robot can be remotely operated and controlled, and we are building 25 of these robots. Although we are not currently selling the Texai robot, we are amenable to doing so given sufficient demand.”
Seriously now, why is everyone so worried about the fate of Willow Garage?