Here's a robot video that I found interesting:
Featured on http://www.robots-dreams.com
The big news this week is been a "rumor" that Willow Garage will be closing its doors. Needless to say the rumor has generated a lot of concern and handwringing in the robotics community. Willow Garage was originally founded in 2006 by Scott Hassan, apparently using funds accumulated by virtue of the fact that he was a very early Google employee and helped develop a lot of that company's core technology.
Willow Garage has functioned, up until now, as a essentially nonprofit research lab for robotics hardware and open source development. It's ROS robot operating system was welcomed by the community and is for all intents and purposes a de facto standard. ROS has been incorporated into a number of commercial robot products to some extent, or has been used to prototype new systems.
The company also ventured into the hardware sector releasing the PR2 (Personal Robot 2) in 2010. The robot was conceived as a development platform rather than an end-use commercial product. It was made available for sale, and according to the company there are almost 50 of the robots currently being used by customers.
Everything was going fine, and ROS was gaining more and more traction with developers. Then, earlier this week the IEEE Spectrum robotics blog made a post saying that they had learned from multiple sources inside the company that Willow Garage had made the decision to dissolve and had announced the news internally to employees.
Needless to say this type of news coming from a credible source like IEEE really stirred up a storm. Developers with active ROS projects, and customers using the PR2 robots immediately wanted to know what was going on. I can only imagine that the phones at Willow Garage were ringing off the hook.
In response to the rumor, Steve Cousins, the president and CEO of Willow Garage, made a very short post on the company blog just before midnight on Monday. Without supplying any details or going into the background, Cousins stated that the company had decided to become a commercial entity that would be self-sustaining making a "important change" to their funding model.
He went on to try and reassure readers that the company would continue to provide support for the PR2 robot, at least those that have already been sold. With regard to ROS, he basically positioned it as an open source platform that will continue independent of any changes to the Willow Garage business model.
Several of the leading technology websites, including Engadget, Fast Company, and others, posted news stories echoing the post from Cousins, but without adding any additional information. Of course, the IEEE robotics blog updated their original post to include the statements from Cousins.
Nevertheless, it's clear that something is in the wind at Willow Garage. It's also clear that the company isn't ready to disclose the details yet. In some respects the situation is reminiscent of the rumors about Aldebaran Robotics last year. In that case we never did find out if the company had received a major influx of operating capital, but the fact that it's actively increasing headcount and aggressively marketing the NAO humanoid robot implies that they did.
On the other hand, Willow Garage hasn't had to be overly concerned about profitability and cash generation. They have a wealth of talent, and technology, but their open source approach in the past may mean that not a lot of the technology is protected by patents. More important, talent is embedded in the brains of key employees that also have two feet and are endowed with free will, meaning that they can walk whenever they like, especially if they are concerned about the future of the company.
It will be very interesting to see how this situation develops. It's much more than just the fate of a single company. Because Willow Garage has been so successful in influencing robot hardware and software development over the past seven years, the change in its business model, and whether it survives or not, will create significant side effects for robotics in general.