I would like to point out two news items involving telepresence robots that are definitely worth reading. First, a "manifesto" reprinted from the June 1980 issue of Omni magazine where artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, shares his views on telepresence (a term he originally coined). His essay includes a prediction of remote avatars (ie. Surrogates), operation in hazardous / remote environments, and even a discussion of how little development has occurred since the 1950's (remember, his essay is from 1980; did you know that full-body exoskeletons were produced back in the 1950s?!). Second, a NYTimes article by John Markoff that discusses five top American contenders in the space: Vgo (Vgo Communications), Tilr (RoboDynamics), Texai (Willow Garage), RP-7i (InTouch Health), and QB (Anybots). The article captures the society aspect and high-level overview but lacks meaty technology details (though the side-by-side photo montage is useful for direct comparison).
I was captivated by Marvin Minsky's essay from 1980; it could just as easily have been written yesterday! It includes vast application possibilities, of a Gulf oil spill, the unsolved teleoperation challenges, the seemingly slow progress in actuators, materials, sensing, and human physiology research -- incredible! Perhaps the most striking thing (to me) was the discussion of force feedback techniques (and their descent into relative obscurity) between 1950 to 1980. It many ways, I can see analogs from the 1990's until today, now that force / torque control is coming back into vogue. His example of an exoskeleton developed in 1958 is incredible!
Iron Man: Ralph Mosher, an engineer working for General Electric in the 1950s, developed a robotic exoskeleton called Hardiman. The mechanical suit, consisting of powered arms and legs, could give him superhuman strength. Mosher subsequently made a simpler version that permitted him to sit in his chair and pick up refrigerators.
I also love the in memoriam at the end of the essay; the reasoning has parallels to Hizook's creation, and I feel better knowing that I'm not alone... (too funny!)
In memoriam, 2001: This essay was published in Omni because Kathy Keeton Guccione, its founder, instantly grasped these ideas and suggested that Omni could reach more readers than would any technical journal.
A personal request: as an avid scifi fan (and aspiring scifi writer), would anyone know where to find the back issues of Omni Magazine (preferably in pdf form)?
Go read the article. After reading Minsky's essay, I'm sure you can appreciate the relatively slow pace of robot advances. Don't get me wrong, I think there has been a lot of progress for those of us working in the trenches, but we still have a long way to go before we get the full sensory immersion suggested by Minsky's vision of telepresence.
I liked Markoff's article well enough, but I thought the side-by-side montage of the various robots was the best thing from the article:
A small gray area... Giraffe (HeadThere) was omitted from the lineup. Giraffe was a cool implementation that was nearly sued into oblivion by InTouch in 2007. From what I've heard, they relocated to Europe and are successfully deploying robots -- I would have included them on the list as a contender.