As much as we’d like to think that we’re entering an era of autonomous robots, they’re actually still pretty helpless. To keep them from falling down all the time, a human’s fast reflexes could be the solution. But the human has to feel what the robot is feeling — and that’s just what these researchers are testing.
Bipedal robots are excellent in theory for navigating human environments, but naturally are more prone to falling than quadrupedal or wheeled robots. Although they often have sophisticated algorithms that help keep them upright, in some situations those just might not be enough.
As a way to bridge that gap, researchers at MIT and the University of Illinois-Champaign put together a sort of hybrid human-robot system reminiscent of either Pacific Rim or Evangelion, depending on your nerd alignment (or Robot Jox, if you want to go that way).
Although the references may be sci-fi, the need for this kind of thing is real, explained U of I’s João Ramos, co-creator of the system with MIT’s Sangbae Kim.
“We were motivated by watching the 2011 Tohoku, Japan, earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster unfold. We thought that if a robot could have entered the power plant after the disaster, things could have ended differently,” Ramos said in a U of I news release.
The robot they created is a small bipedal one they call Little Hermes, and it is hooked up directly to a human operator, who stands on a pressure-sensing plate and wears a force-feedback vest.
The robot generally follows the operator’s movements, not in a 1:1 sense (especially since the robot is much smaller than a person), but after interpreting those movements in terms of center of gravity and force vectors, makes a corresponding one almost simultaneously. (The MIT writeup goes into a bit more detail, as does the video below.)
Meanwhile, if the robot were to, say, encounter an unexpected slope or obstacle, those forces are conveyed to the operator via the vest. Feeling pressure indicating a leftward lean, the operator will reflexively take a step in that direction using those excellent instincts we animals have developed. Naturally the robot does the same thing and, hopefully, catches itself.
This feedback loop could make on-site rescue robots and others on uncertain footing more reliable. The technology is not limited to legs, though, or even to Little Hermes. The team wants to set up similar feedback systems for feet and hands, so mobility and grip can be further improved.
The reMarkable tablet is a strange device in this era of ultra-smart gadgets: A black and white screen meant for reading, writing, and sketching — and nothing more. Yet the company has sold 100,000 of the devices and now has attracted $ 15 million in series A funding from Spark Capital.
It’s an unusual trajectory for a hardware startup exploring a nearly unoccupied market, but CEO Magnus Wanberg is confident that’s because this category of device is destined to grow in response to increasingly invasive tech. Sometimes an anti-technology trend is the tech opportunity of a lifetime.
I reviewed the reMarkable last year and compared it with its only real competition, the Sony Digital Paper Tablet. It was launched not on Kickstarter or Indiegogo but with its own independent crowdfunding campaign — and considering we’ve seen devices like this attempt such a thing and either let down or rip off their backers, that alone was a significant risk.
The device has been a runaway success, though, selling over 100,000 units — and attracting investment in the process. When I talked with Wanberg and co-founder Gerst about their new A round, the conversation was so interesting that I decided to publish it in full (or at least slightly edited).
How did they get here? What would they have done differently? Is the threat of the “smart” world really a thing? Why fight tech with more tech?
Devin: So you guys raised some money, that’s great! But it’s been a while since we talked. I think it’s important to hear about the progress of unique companies that are doing interesting things. So first can you tell me a little about what the company’s been busy with?
Magnus: Well, we’ve created this wonderful product, the reMarkable paper tablet. We’ve been very focused on that effort, based on a love for paper and a love for technology, to see if we can find some ways to join these two together to help people think better. That’s sort of the the whole ethos of the company.
So for the last six years, we’ve just been grinding away… you know, we’re a small player up against the big guys on this. So we’ve been sort of fighting guerrilla warfare trying to trying to establish ourselves.
And we were successful, fortunately, when we did our pre-order campaign, because as we found out, we weren’t the only ones who who love this notion of thinking better with the paper tablet, seeing paper as a powerful tool for thinking and for creating.