Technology normally has to percolate in the military or the space program before it trickles down to private companies and consumers. But video games are an interesting exception. A few years ago, scientists realized that the graphics chips in video games could function as cheap, ultrafast math processors. You could build a low-cost supercomputer just by wiring together a half dozen or more Sony Playstations (manual). The result: Desktop high-performance computing (HPC) was born. Recently, researchers in robotics-related areas have harnessed HPC computing for computationally intensive tasks, such as computer vision.
Fast forward to 2010. When Microsoft released its Kinect system for the Xbox game, companies and academics were quick to see the device’s many applications in robotics. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of newly formed Kinect applications-developer communities such as OpenKinect, robotics firms, among them Willow Garage (video), and universities, like MIT (article), are hard at work, studying ways to harness Kinect’s power.
For good reason. Not only does the device process highly detailed visual information and then display it in real time. But it can recognize objects and even the gender and size of those using it. A New York Times article noted that to build in that high-level of intelligence, “Microsoft found people of varying shapes and sizes and recorded how they moved by monitoring 48 joints in their bodies. Over time, the algorithms that digest this data became better and better.”
Kinect’s abilities make it an ideal, highly intuitive graphical user interface for robotics (video). Move your arm a certain way, and your robotic-shaped avatar on a display screen mimics your move, while a computer simultaneously transfers that movement to an actual robot. It’s easy to see how this interface could help teach robots to do everything from folding laundry to repairing satellites.
But we’re still only scratching the surface of potential applications. The Singularity Hub reports on an MIT PhD student who used Kinect to enable an iRobot Create to “see its environment and obey your gestured commands.” What’s more, the device, which its inventor Philipp Robbel calls the KinectBot, can assemble “3D maps of its surroundings and wirelessly send them to a host computer. KinectBot can also detect nearby humans and track their movements to understand where they want it to go.” Elsewhere, a Berkeley student used Kinect to intelligently control a gyrocopter.
Videos demonstrating Kinect’s robotic applications have gone viral on the Web. Meanwhile, the ROS (Robot Operating System) open-source community debuted a wiki on using Kinect, and it announced a contest (entry deadline January 23, 2011) for the best way to make Kinect work with ROS.
But back to my original notion that leading-edge technology now regularly emanates from the video-game industry. There’s a logical reason for why this is so: money. Corporate giants like Sony and Microsoft are willing to shell out huge sums to develop gaming hardware, because they know an eager mass audience for the end products exists. Microsoft reportedly “spent $100s of millions developing Kinect,” an amount that would dwarf the project budgets at universities and start-ups, where much leading-edge robotics research now takes place.
Which begs the question: What video gaming technology will be adapted next by the robotics industry? A good guess might be game engines. Harnessing their power would enable robots to be programmed faster and far more easily within a simulated environment. Work in this area is already taking place within the open-source Blender game-engine community. With their embedded AI and advanced physics, game engines can quickly render highly detailed virtual environments that closely match the locations where robots operate. And that development, like the development of desktop HPC and Kinect, took place thanks to a gargantuan number of developers who’ve spent millions of man hours and millions of dollars laying out the core technologies.
Special Note: We’ll take a deeper look at Kinect’s growing influence on robotics in a future issue of Robotics Business Review