Developers may remember a time when you’d boot up your computer and all you’d get was a blank screen and blinking cursor. It was up to engineers and coders to build the content; the computer was just a platform. Ian Bernstein, founder and head of product at Misty Robotics, believes robots today are in that same place that computers were decades ago. “We’re at that same point with robots today, where people are just building robots over and over with Raspberry Pis and Arduinos,” Bernstein told Design News. ceme qiu
Bernstein is calling for a departure from thinking of robots as tools and machines to thinking of them more as platforms. Misty Robotics has designed its flagship robot of the same name, Misty, with that idea in mind. “It’s about giving people enough functionality to start to do useful things—but not too much, where it becomes too expensive or complicated,” Bernstein said. “It’s also about complexity. For developers, it is not approachable if you don’t know where to start.”
Boulder, Colorado-based Misty Robotics’ upcoming product, Misty II, is a 2-ft-tall, 6-lb robot. It is designed to do what the smartphone has done for mobile app developers, but for robotics engineers and makers—provide access to powerful features to open up the robot for a variety of applications. At its core, Misty II is driven by a deep learning processor capable of a variety of machine learning tasks, such as facial and object recognition, distance detection, spatial mapping, and sound and touch sensing. Developers can also 3D print (or even laser cut or CNC machine) custom parts to attach to Misty to expand its functionality for moving and manipulating objects. Misty II will also feature USB and serial connectors as well as an optional Arduino attachment to allow for hardware expansion with additional sensors and other peripherals. (One planned for release by the company is a thermal imaging camera.)
There are already several single-purpose robots available to consumers to use in the home. People will be most familiar with the Roomba robotic vacuum, but there are also robotic window washers, lawnmowers, security guards, and even pool cleaners currently available.
Speaking with Design News ahead of CES 2019, where Misty II was available for hands-on demonstrations, Bernstein said that, while the idea of a smart home full of connected robots all going about their various tasks sounds like the wave of the future, he doesn’t find this vision particularly feasible. “It’s not going to be economical to have single-purpose robots or eight different robots in your home,” he said. “A big part of that is cost. Robots require movements and motors, and you can’t bring that raw materials cost down.”
Rather than moving toward a world of a collaborative robot for every job, we should be heading toward having a singular cobot that can be configured for a plethora of tasks, he said.
The journey toward Misty II begins with Star Wars. But not just because of the inspiration that can be derived from characters like R2-D2 and C3-PO.
In 2014, Bernstein and his team were part of the Disney Accelerator program focused on supporting tech startups. While at Disney, Bernstein and his company (then called Orbotix) were working on a robot in a very simple form factor—a ball.
It was around this time that production was gearing up for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the series entry that would introduce a new fan-favorite robot character, BB-8. While BB-8 was brought to life on-screen using puppeteering and other special effects, the team at Disney also wanted to create a real-life working model of BB-8. Orbotix’s work caught the attention of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who instantly recognized the team’s work as the solution to bringing BB-8 into the real world.
The time at Disney would allow Bernstein and his team to develop and release their first commercial product. They changed their company name to Sphero and released a spherical robot of the same name. Since its release, Sphero has found success as a consumer product and can be found in many stores. It has also found a home as an education product and has spawned a vibrant community of schools and educators that use it to teach STEM. Today, Sphero is used in over 10,000 schools worldwide, according to Bernstein.
There is also, of course, a toy model of BB-8 that is essentially a Sphero with a BB-8 skin on top.
There Is No Killer App
But you can’t spend any amount of time with the team making the next Star Wars without picking up some new ideas. “Disney got us thinking about adding personality and story elements to our robots with Sphero,” Bernstein said. “We started thinking about what could really be done with robots. We had prototyped some more advanced robots at Sphero—telepresence robots and things like that—but they didn’t feel quite right.”
What the Sphero team was searching for was how to create a product to which users would feel a deep, personal connection. R2-D2 and BB-8 are entertainment, but why couldn’t they make the real version? “It was thinking about this idea of a robot in every home and office, and why couldn’t a robot do useful things and have a personality and character?” Bernstein said.