We've been following the release of the Sony PSP3 and the new Nintendo Wii system avidly, and can hardly wait to get some hands-on time with both systems. That may seem a little odd since we aren't dyed-in-the-wool game addicts, and have no intention of purchasing either system at the moment.
What really interests us about the new gaming systems is the sensing technology. Positional, acceleration, and gyro sensors have been around for a long, long time. But cost of the sensors limited their applications and availability. Now, with hundreds of thousands of new gaming systems hitting the market, all equipped with exciting, low cost sensor technology, we expect a whole new set of applications and hacks to start hitting robotics.
During the Space Race in the late 1960's and 70's, a simple, single axis accelerometer was assembled, calibrated, and tested by hand in much the same way that a fine mechanical watch is manufactured. Volumes were extremely low by today's standards, with typical manufacturing lots in the tens or hundreds of units. And prices were high, with a single sensor sometimes listing for over a thousand dollars or more.
Through the application of manufacturing techniques developed for semiconductor manufacturing, and driven by a few high volume applications like the need for sensing in automobiles, almost all of the highly skilled manual labor has been replaced by automatic processing. At the same time, manufacturing costs have dropped considerably.
For example, we recently added two gyro sensors to our MANOI AT01 robot and only dented our wallet by around $80 or so. We're very happy with the performance improvement, and consider it money well spent.
But what would happen if the sensor prices dropped to one tenth? Wouldn't that open the door to adding multiple sensors to our robot designs that could result in dramatic performance improvement? We might be able to add sensors to report the relative motion, loading, or position of each individual part of the robot, or to provide object tracking and triangulation data. Of course, that's assuming that our design has the computing horsepower to deal with the flood of sensor data.
The popularity of new gaming systems, especially the radical Wii approach, will trigger numerous third party add-ons and accessories. Most of them will be targeted at high volume sales with low street prices. And, it won't take long for enterprising hackers to rip them apart and start publishing ways to hack them for other applications. We've already seen that happen with game controllers being adapted for use with humanoid robots. Over the next year or two, we expect to see a major shift in the use of low cost sensors in robotics.
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