Willow Garage, a robotics research facility here in Menlo Park, may be my most favorite InMenlo assignment to date. This past Wednesday, CEO Steve Cousins was kind enough to take me through the large, bustling plant, where there are futuristic wonders to be discovered at every turn.
Privately funded Willow Garage is developing advanced robots – both hardware and software – with the goal of advancing robotics to the tipping point (still thought to be many years hence) at which the field will advance rapidly to the eve of, say, affordable domestic robots that can load dishwashers and perform other simple chores (remember Rosie the robot maid on The Jetsons?).
With nearly as many robots as humans, the corridors at Willow Garage are busy. Autonomous robots known as the PR2 (Personal Robot 2) can navigate the halls, open doors (first making sure the door is unlocked by gently trying the knob), find outlets and plug themselves in to recharge.
Another robot, the tall, thin Texas model, allows remote workers to interact with on-site peers via ‘telepresence.’ Indeed, while I was photographing robotics program co-director Eric Berger (inset photo, above), Dallas Goecker, a Willow Garage engineer who lives in Indiana, came over to see what was going on (you can see “him” in the background of the larger photo on InMenlo). Earlier I photographed designer Curt Meyers with some 25 of his “Texas” model, known plurally as “Texai” (top photo).
Willow Garage, in keeping with its mission, is an open source developer, and makes its software, including contributions to the Robot Operating System available online. The institution is in the process of making the (reportedly) $500,000 PR2 available to researchers, also free. We were impressed. Wow…