Robotics – The Early Days Are Now [editorial]

Robotics appears to be following in the footsteps of the early personal computers. There's tremendous interest, a lot of excitement, a lot of technology companies want to bring one to market, and a lot of customers want to own one, but -

... and it's a very big 'but', no one can figure out exactly why you should want one, or what it will do after you bring it home and un-box it. And, that's not all bad.

"Where's the beef?"

Exactly the same thing happened 30 years ago with the initial introduction of the personal computer. Around 1975 the initial rumblings started. By 1978 things had really started to heat up, and by the early 1980's companies were building viable businesses around PCs, and people were beginning to use them as tools rather than just hobbies or toys.

The first portable computer that we remember seeing had a wooden case and was hacked together in a garage. The early PC and PC peripheral companies seemed to introduce a new product or board almost every week, sometimes several a week. 

One of our favorites that disappeared somewhere along the way was the Cromemco Dazzler - a color display board that plugged into the Altair 8800 computer - the first affordable PC. The very idea of being able to display color images was so compelling that few of us ever stopped to think about what we would actually do with it - other than to sit in front of the display in awe. There were more than a handful of people that bought the Dazzler kit and assembled it to the point it was ready to test before they realized that it didn't do anything by itself. Then they bought the Altair computer kit, spent at least a week or more assembling it and getting it running, only to realize that they also needed software to run on the computer to drive the display... These people were not stupid - far from it. They were chasing a dream, feeling their way along, and learning in the process.

Image00387Now, three decades later, many of the robot hobbyists and experimenters are feeling their way down similar paths. We're seeing a huge number of robot projects. Some of them will survive. The vast majority of them will shrivel and die, or just fade away. Yet everyone of them, in one way or another, contributes to our overall robotics body of knowledge and helps to lay the foundation for what is to come. Thirty years from now we may look back and chuckle a bit at some of the early projects like the Korean robot with Einstein's face without realizing the major contribution that all of these learning experiences and experiments have made to enrich our lives. 

Related Links:

APEC Information and Technology (IT) exhibition [via Donga]


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