Perhaps you remember Garratt Gallagher -- he's the ROS / Kinect hacker responsible for 30% of all entries in the recent Kinect / ROS 3D competition, in which he won first place for Impromptu Buttons (his other entries such as Finger Detection, People Follower, Kinect Minority Report Interface, etc. were also quite impressive). However I want to introduce you to his most exciting project to date: Bilibot. Started in December and funded with $5,500 through KickStarter, the Bilibot Project is an open source effort to create an affordable robotics platform based on the iRobot Create, Kinect, and a computer pre-installed and pre-configured with Ubuntu and ROS. The goal is to create a platform for hackers, enthusiasts, and researchers that works right out of the box without the (often daunting) challenge of installing and configuring Ubuntu and ROS. Frankly, the $150 Kinect may be popular in the gaming industry, but it will completely revolutionize robotics -- it is an amazing sensor, and the Bilibot project aims to make it even more accessible.
As you can see, Bilibot has an iRobot Create mobile base, a Kinect (depth sensor plus camera), a low-cost computer pre-installed and pre-configured with Ubuntu and ROS, and a laser-cut chassis. The goal is to provide a platform for hackers, enthusiasts, and researchers that works right out of the box without the (often daunting) challenge of installing and configuring Ubuntu and ROS.
This all stems from a simple observation: Microsoft's Kinect is popular -- at just $150 ea, they sold more than 8 million in the first 60 days after release. We've seen literally hundreds of Kinect hacking demos, both in- and outside of robotics. Within robotics, a few involving iRobot Creates and quadrotors spring to mind. However, these demos tend to get downplayed by academics who have seen depth sensing sensors like the Kinect before. But a simple fact remains: academics are flocking to the Kinect in droves. For example, many labs receiving Willow Garage's PR2, a $400k robot with a massive suite of sensors, have tacked on a Kinect.
Perhaps it is because the Kinect has better data? Perhaps it's an easier interface? Perhaps it's just the price? Whatever the reason, the message is clear: given all of the PR2’s many (depth) sensors, roboticists would rather have a Kinect. And this is great news for hobbyists.
What luck! It turns out that the best robot sensor on the market is also the cheapest -- affordable to the casual gamer. So why hasn’t the hobby robotics market latched on? Where are all the robots with Kinects on them? According to Garratt Gallagher at MIT: lack of know-how. He says, "To make a hobby robot attractive, it has got to do cool stuff like follow you around, navigate by itself, or better yet: go get me a beer!" To do all that, you need a good sensor (which we now have) and software...
"ROS contains all the software to make your homebrew robot amazing." Garratt tells us, "But it can be very hard for the average programmer to dive in. Don't get me wrong, the people at Willow Garage have done an amazing job making the software easy to use, but if you are new to the concepts behind robotics or to the unix development environment, the learning curve can be brutal."
The Bilibot project's solution... "The computer is crucial." Garratt explains, "By bundling a computer with the Bilibot, we can ensure that people will have a working system right out of the box. No more figuring out Ubuntu first, or uncertainty as to whether you installed everything correctly. When you get your Bilibot, there will be a button on the desktop that will make your robot follow you around."
It's a tall order, but Garratt feels up to the task! He has got a little (ok, a lot) of experience in this field. In his day job Garratt is a robotics researcher at MIT, where he works on several different robot platforms (including the PR2). He also helps maintain a cluster of ROS / Ubuntu computers and instructs MIT students about how to develop their own ROS / PR2 apps. He has made quite a few fun ROS Kinect demos (see videos at the end of this article). Regardless, the Bilibot project could use your help. Drop by Bilibot.com to make pre-orders, keep up to date, contribute code, or share your opinions. For example, right now they're trying to select a computer that is cheap but powerful enough to run all the ROS software you'll need -- thoughts?
For those who are interested, I thought I might share some Kinect-enabled applications / videos that are already ROS-ready or will be shortly. For example, a few of Garratt's (including his award-winning "Impromptu Buttons"):