Everyone knows how crazy the Japanese are about humanoid robots, but it's hard to really appreciate how extreme the mania is unless you can go behind the scenes and experience it first hand. In mid-March we were lucky enough to have access to all the pit areas for the 10th bi-annual ROBO-ONE Light competition.
Keep in mind that this is just one of the many humanoid competitions that take place regularly in Japan. There are regional competitions across the nation, some colleges and universities stage regular competitions, and some robot companies like KONDO hold competitions as well. It’s hard to get a good estimate of how many people are actively involved in the sport, and learning experience, nationwide. We can only judge from the large crowds of participants and audience that turn out in force for events like this.
Moreover, each one of those robots represents an investment of typically USD$1,500 or more plus countless hours of assembly, testing, motion creation, modifications/improvements, and practice. It’s not unusual for a fan dedicated to the sport to invest USD$10,000 or more constantly evolving and improving their robot over a period of many years.
Competitors come from all walks of life, age groups, and genders. While some of the participants are professional engineers, many are students, housewives, and even truck drivers. The one thing they have in common is a passion for robotics.
Although the ROBOTIS-MINI entry level humanoid kit robot is considerably smaller and lighter than the typical ROBO-ONE competitor, it still features speed and agility that ensure that with an experienced operator it can survive in the competition ring.
At the ROBO-ONE Light event, held mid-March in Atsugi, Japan, one of the ROBOTIS-MINI robots clearly demonstrated the robots potential. Of course, in the end the laws of physics have to prevail, and as you might expect, the robot was eliminated by a stronger competitor. Nevertheless, the ROBOTIS-MINI managed to duck and weave while avoiding what might have been killer punches from its opponents.
Think about it for a moment. Here’s a low-cost, under USD$500, humanoid robot that is Open-Source/Open-Hardware, as easy to put together as an IKEA bookshelf, Arduino compatible, targeted at STEM and robotics learners as well as researchers and hobbyists, and it turns out that almost out-of-the-box it is capable of going head to head with ROBO-ONE class humanoids. That’s pretty amazing. The ROBOTIS-MINI is making humanoid robots accessible, affordable, and exciting. You can’t beat that combination.
ROBO-ONE Light is open to all humanoid builders at an entry level and features pre-qualified robot kits that are typically around 1 kg. in weight. Competitions are held the day before the ROBO-ONE events.
ROBOTIS-MINI was formerly marketed as the DARWIN-MINI humanoid robot kit.
When we first heard about OZOBOT, a little over a year ago, all the buzz was about this new robot game piece that would make a dramatic difference in the gaming world. Then, very shortly thereafter, all the press and promotion switched to OZOBOT being a new and innovative way for young learners to learn the basics of programming/coding.
After spending a few days getting to know OZOBOT, our conclusion is that OZOBOT is both, and it is neither. It occupies a specific niche, almost an island, where it delivers significant value and can be highly recommended. Beyond that niche, it really isn’t clear, at least not yet, how far OZOBOT can be expanded or adopted to provide more of an extended learning experience.
OZOBOT’s design is quite innovative. It’s tiny, yet packs a lot of technology inside a body that’s just a little bigger than our thumb. In a nutshell, which is a strangely apt reference since the relative size is the same, OZOBOT is a line follower robot with two small drive wheels and a sensor array on the bottom. As it follows line paths, different color segments tell it to change behavior. The overall concept is very simple and straight forward. Students create paths with different colored segments, either with marking pens or by using their fingers to draw the lines and segments on an iPad or Android tablet. This enables them to quickly grasp the basic concept of programming and coding.
OZOBOT also provides visual feedback. For example, when it passes over a blue colored line segment, one of the robots LEDs glows blue. Students can change the robots mode using a button located on one side of the body.
All line follower robots require some sensor calibration since the operating environments and lighting can vary greatly. For OZOBOT, you just use the mode button to put the robot into calibration mode, a white LED will flash indicating it’s ready to be calibrated, then you place it on the provided calibration card. After a few seconds the LED flashes green, and you’re good to go.
In addition to preprinted line paths and some examples students can use to create their own, the company also supports several different smartphone/tablet applications for both iOS and ANDROID.
One application simulates the line creation process on screen. Actually, we prefer using this app over hand drawing lines since during our tests we were able to achieve much more consistent results that way. However, very young students may prefer the hand drawing method and may find it much more engaging and fun. A second application combines music and rhythm with the robots motions - kind of like a robot disco performance. It’s a fun app, especially for demonstrating the robot, but might get old in a hurry.
OZOBOT’s price is relatively low, typically less than USD$50 for one robot or under USD$100 for the special dual set package. Keep in mind that the robot is non-repairable, at least for anyone with less know-how and skill than an Ultra-Geek, and the built-in battery can’t be replaced. Once the robot breaks, or the battery wears out, you’ll have a cute little paperweight - which isn’t all bad.
So, where does OZOBOT fit in the larger scheme of things? It doesn’t appear to have gained traction as a robot game piece, at least we weren’t able to locate any commercial games that have adopted the technology.
On the other hand, many educators have incorporated the robot into their entry level programs. It seems like a natural fit to kickstart students into the core elements of programming and robotics. What isn’t clear is what the next natural learning step for the students should be. How do they transfer the learning and expand on it? At this point that seems to be a decision for each individual teacher or educator.
I first ran across BOCCO at Maker Faire Tokyo last year, and I have to say that I was a little skeptical about its potential as a product and as a business. Although BOCCO incorporates quite a few communication functions, like delivering a message to your loved ones while you are absent, many other devices that are capable of doing the same things, like smartphones and tablets, already exist.
Yet, BOCCO drew big crowds at Maker Faire, and continued to gain fans and supporters over the months that followed. And, when the BOCCO Kickstarter project launched, a significant percentage of those fans demonstrated their love of the robot by opening their wallets and supplying funding. As of this evening, 20 hours before the project closes, they have already exceeded the original goal of raising $20,000 by a considerable margin.
What makes BOCCO so unusual? Why were people willing to fund the project when logically there are already many ways to satisfy the core communication functions with existing technology like smartphones?
BOCCO is emotionally attractive and welcoming. The robot’s ‘cute’ and non-threatening personality makes it perfect for situations involving people that are either too young, or too old, to be comfortable using a smartphone. For example, BOCCO could be your personal remote avatar interacting in an engaging manner with an elderly grandparent living in a full care facility, even if they happened to be a 1,000 miles or more away. BOCCO is fun. BOCCO is friendly. And, BOCCO is caring. When it comes to robots and people, that’s enough - it’s more than enough.
Robot Pro Wrestling during RoboGames 2015 in San Mateo, California. Ryuketsu-Kamen, piloted by Yoshifumi Omata, and Thunderbolt, piloted by Yoshihiro Shibata face off in the ring to give the crowds a taste of what real robot pro wrestling in Japan is like.
Omaha and Shibata love introducing their humanoid entertainment robots to children of all ages in hopes that it will inspire some of them to get involved in robotics and STEM learning opportunities, or even purse a career in engineering or science. They are so dedicated that they took vacation time off from their regular day jobs, bought plane tickets, and flew half way across the globe just to compete in RoboGames.
Picked up the new TASCAM DR-22WL digital recorder to capture better audio for interviews and videos. From the specifications, and most user reviews, it should be a good fit for my needs. I’ll be able to give it a few field tests before I make the international trek to MakerCon and Bay Area Maker Faire this May.
The built-in WiFi capability and free iOS and Android apps were the major selling point for me. Being able to remotely control the recorder from my smartphone will be a huge improvement. That will allow me to position the recorder in the best spot to capture audio while giving me the freedom to move around with my camera as I shoot the action.
My initial tests, though short, indicate that the smartphone control not only works, it actually is simpler and more straightforward to use than the buttons on the recorder itself.
All though the DR-22WL only supports two channels compared to it’s bigger, and more expensive brother, the DR-44WL, it weighs less, fits in my hand and backpack nicely, and has all the functions I am likely to need built right in.
The build quality is acceptable, though not at the top of the range. For example, you have to look closely at the mini-USB connector to confirm the orientation - something that should be more obvious if the access hole in the case matched the connector.
Powered by two AA cell batteries that are easily available almost anywhere on the planet, I shouldn’t have to face unexpected charging problems onsite, which is a significant plus.
Included in the DR-22WL package are the recorder, batteries, a mini-USB cable, and the instruction manual in both English and Japanese. The more expensive DR-44WL also includes a cloth case for the recorder, which would be nice. Looks like a quick trip to the local 100¥ (dollar store) will fix that shortcoming.
With only a few hours use under my belt, I’m pleased by what I’ve experienced with the DR-22WL so far. The display could be a little brighter, especially for outdoor use, and the menu fonts could be much larger - still the recorder is more than adequate in both respects.
The WiFi remote control apps, at least the iOS version, work as advertised and were easy to setup and use. There is also a WiFi file transfer app available for free download from the TASCAM website. That will get tested tomorrow. Of course, coupling your smartphone or computer to the recorder means that you don’t have WiFi access to the internet simultaneously unless you setup a separate router. This isn’t a significant problem for my intended uses, but could impact those that want to broadcast the audio real-time from events.
In addition to recording interviews and audio for event videos, I also plan to use the DR-22WL for article dictation processing the output through Dragon Dictate. It would be nice if the recorder could also be used as an active microphone for direct use with the same application, but I’m not sure if that is possible, and it isn’t a deal killer since I have a Blue Snowball microphone I typically use in the studio.
Game of Drones - the fantastic aerial combat competition where multicopters take to the air and try to knock each other out of the sky - is currently accepting pilot and team applications for the May 15th competition that will take place at the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo.
Even if your courage isn’t up for it, you’ll want to put it on your ‘must-see’ list when you attend Maker Faire next month.
More and more universities are offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where anyone, anywhere in the world, can benefit from exactly the same courseware and resources as local students. Of course, they have to have relatively high speed internet access. Typically these courses are free, though some require a minimal charge.
For example, Queensland University of Technology in Australia will be offering two information rich courses in robotics early in 2015. Introduction to Robotics covers the world of robots along with the necessary underlying mathematics and algorithms, while Robotic Vision explores computer vision in robot designs and applications. Instructor for both courses will be Professor Peter Corke.
Fascinated by robots as a young child, Yuki Nakagawa, founder and CEO of RT Corp, has been involved in Japanese humanoid robotics and robots in the home for almost her entire career. Her life’s mission is to improve and enhance people’s quality of life through the use of robot technologies.
This July she’ll be sharing her unique observations, insights, know-how, and vision for the future at Innorobo 2015 in Lyon, France. It’s a rare opportunity to meet and interact with a Japanese expert in the field to gain insight into why Japan has earned a high reputation for human/robot interaction and co-working, and to talk about what the future may hold.
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