The Japanese robot builders are definitely World-Class, even at the hobby level. Their intense focus on the technology, craftsmanship, and quality makes them tough competitors in almost every sector of robotics, except for military/defense applications where the US holds a unique position.
So, if you were an American robot builder who happened to be living here and had the opportunity to compete head to head with the local talent, what could you possibly do to impress them and improve your odds of winning one of the top positions?
That was the dilemma facing Taylor Veltrop when he decided to enter the Robot Athlete Cup 2011 competition. Having lived here, and already having achieved a reasonable level of fluency with the language was certainly a help, but it was going to take a lot more than that to get up in front of the crowds with his robot and put on a three minute performance hoping to score high enough to stay in the running. His worst nightmares must have included vivid images of being laughed off the stage, or worse.
At the same time, he had about two years of experience working with, and heavily modifying, a Kondo KHR-1HV humanoid robot including adding a custom set of grippers designed by robot pro Matt Bauer; intimate knowledge of the Willow Garage ROS robot operating system; and as an avid gamer he knew how to hack game systems like the Microsoft Kinect and the Nintendo Wii controllers. He had even put together a successful master/slave remote control system based on ROS that allowed the robot to follow and mimic his movements.
But, all of that technology, as advanced and unique as it might seem, was still lacking any emotional appeal. It might be able to impress the “minds” of the judges, other builders, and some in the audience, but it wouldn't touch their hearts.
Then, almost at the last minute, just a couple days before the event, he hit on what turned out to be the perfect solution. He would demonstrate his robot doing traditional Japanese Ikebana flower arranging!
As you can tell from the audience reaction and applause, the robots demonstration was a big hit. He won first place in the performance category and took home the 20,000 yen cash prize, roughly USD$240, which is about what it would cost him to buy two new servos for his robot.
Of course a few things went awry. To get the proper range of motion from the robots arms he had to add additional degrees of freedom. The robot could still walk and operate successfully, but the added weight shifted the center of balance and he didn't have time to redo all of the motion routines. That forced him to pay extremely close attention during the performance. If he accidentally raised both arms at the same time the robot would suddenly fall over.
After staying up almost all night practicing the performance and trying to get it within the 3 minute time limit, he drove to the venue and started setting up, only to find that the overhead lighting interfered with the Kinect sensors. It took a while to figure out, with the help and understanding of the event organizers, which lights needed to be shut off so the system would work reliably.
We have to say that Taylor certainly has guts, or is addicted to living right on the edge. Most of us would have been happy just to survive the performance and would have quickly bowed our way off the stage at the end of the 3 minutes.
Not Taylor. He decided to take a risk and ask for volunteers from the audience! Luckily one of the young boys was game, and as luck would have it he happened to be wearing a completely black jacket that the Kinect immediately locked onto.
What will Taylor and his humanoids do for an encore? We're not certain but you can be sure it will be robotic, challenging, exciting, and a whole lot of fun.