Friday, December 16, 2011

Turning robots into products

Many good points about the commercial prospects for robotics are made in a recent episode of the robots podcast.  I think it is true that we're at a turning point where mobile robotics is becoming much more practical than it was in the past, and where a hunt for new kinds of applications can commence.

It's not that sensor technologies comparable to the Kinect sensor didn't exist before, since time-of-flight sensors have been around for at least five years and scanning laser rangefinders have been around for longer, but that the current generation of depth sensing technology has a far more favourable price/performance such that applications other than traditional high cost industrial automation ones can be considered.

One way to address the unfocused research problem would be to have some percentage of research activities biased towards application areas.  However, the issue remains that what constitutes good application areas for mobile robotics at this point remains largely undefined.  What's going to happen with robotics will I think be similar to what happened with computers.  In the early days of home computers people didn't really know what they would be used for.  At first they didn't do much more than run simple kinds of games, then they were used for spreadsheets, accountancy and wordprocessing.  In the early 1990s there was a vague idea that computers would be used for "multi media" education, interactive TV or "virtual reality", then in the late 1990s with the rise of the internet the computer became a machine for communicating and doing shopping.

Even in the late 1990s there were still people who asked the question "why would I want a computer in my home?" or "why would I ever want or need to look at the internet?".  People say similar things today about robotics.

So whenever new technology arrives within a consumer price range there is always a long, messy and meandering process of discovery which unfolds and which is not easy to foresee in the research lab.  This means that it's not necessarily a simple task to pick applications towards which research may be biased without being able to foresee the future, and what looks like the hot application of today (elder care or hospital work perhaps) may not be quite so hot by the time something actually gets to the stage of being built and sold.

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