An elegant, sophisticated humanoid
22 degrees of freedom include the ability to tilt the
torso backwards and forwards and rotate its wrists.
by Lem Fugitt, www.robots-dreams.com
More than anything, he wanted to create a humanoid robot that would be completely open, an easy application development platform and could move around and actively communicate and interact with its environment. He wanted to design the type of robot that, as a software developer, he had always wanted to have but could never find on the market.For years, Tomoaki Kasuga worked at Sony as a key member of the AIBO development team. He had a challenging and fulfilling job and was involved in one of the most well known and most highly respected robot projects in the world. But he wanted to do more. He had a dream.
Finally, his passion became so compelling that he struck out on his own, quit his job at Sony, obtained investment capital and established a new company, Speecys, which is dedicated to making his dream robot a reality. We had the opportunity to spend several weeks evaluating Kasuga’s new SPC-101C robot and can say frankly that it is exciting, unique and a pleasure to work with.
Like many of the popular humanoid kits on the market, the robot stands 33cm (13 inches) tall and tips the scales at 1.5kg (3.3 pounds). But that’s where the similarity ends. The SPC-101C has expanded the typical 16 to 17 number of servos (degrees of freedom) to 22. The additional servos provide much more realistic motion and give the robot the ability to mimic human body language very closely. For example, the robot can tilt its torso backwards and forwards at the hips just like a human. This capability saw practical use during our testing when we needed the robot’s built-in camera to look at an object on the floor directly in front of it without losing its balance.
22 Degrees of Freedom
The video camera, mounted in the head, provides surprisingly good image quality. The camera can be panned using the head servo and adjusted up and down by tilting the torso at the waist. Dual stereo speakers are built into the torso sides and provide quite good voice and sound quality when the robot is still. Unfortunately, the whine generated by moving servos sometimes tends to degrade the overall audio experience a bit.
The robot is powered by a Futaba 7.4V 780mAh Futaba LiPo battery, or, for extended programming sessions, it can be operated while plugged into the charger. It was great to be able to run a long test sequence without having to constantly worry about running out of battery power.Specially designed LED arrays in the hands and chest provide the ability to display characters, text, or block graphics such as a big red heart under program control. Think of them as robotic emoticons. Speecys needed the mechanical design to be highly reliable and dependable, so they work- ed very closely with Futaba and selected the proven RPU-50 CPU robot controller and RS301C servos. The controller and servos use RS485 Serial Communication that provides for querying the servos’ positions, torque load, temperature and other parameters.
To get new users started, the ITR Motion Editor for Speecys ships along with the robot and features an interactive 3D editor display window, timelines, the integration of audio and voice files, control of the integral LED displays and a broad library of poses and motion files to chose from.
Wireless and Platform Independent
The robot’s basic specifications are extremely competitive, but that’s just the beginning of the story. Surprisingly, the robot’s operating system is NetBSD, and it communicates using a USB Wireless Lan IEEE802.11G module. It even supports its own IP address. That makes the robot truly platform independent. As long as your system can send it commands and data in the correct formats, it doesn’t matter whether you run on Windows, or Mac OS, or Linux, or your application is written in Visual Basic, C#, Java, or any other development language.
And as long as the robot has wireless connectivity to the Internet, it doesn’t matter whether you operate it from 5 feet or 5,000 miles away. One of our tests involved operating the robot from a remote room on a different floor in the building, and it passed with flying colors. Along the same lines, Speecys has developed proof-of-concept remote presence applications utilizing Skype to allow the transmission of the robot’s video feed along with control commands.
Open Source Software Development Kit
To actively stimulate application development for the robot, Speecys developed an SDK appropriately named “Open Roads.” The SDK can be downloaded from their website and is completely royalty-free, even for commercial applications. The underlying SDK approach is surprisingly simple: you communicate with the robot using TCP/IP socket data streams, and each command has its own basic data packet format that’s very logical and easy to understand. Almost all of the data file formats are flat ASCII text, but there are a few exceptions such as the audio files.
With simplicity often comes power. The open SDK and data formats facilitate the use of a wealth of well established, proven application libraries. For example, the Microsoft .Net 3.0 System Speech libraries can be used to add voice recognition and synthesized speech to the robot. Video
Success in humanoid robotics requires expertise and experience in a wide range of disciplines, including electronics, mechanics, motors and servos, sensors, communication protocols, software programming and several other fields. That’s a big part of the challenge and enjoyment for many researchers and experimenters, but it can quickly become frustrating for those who just want to specialize in applications development, for example.
The SPC-101C was deliberately designed to minimize this kind of frustration, especially for software and robotics application developers. The robot’s walking ability is a good example. The feet are a little wider and longer than the typical humanoid robot’s while its legs and weight distribution have been tuned for maximum walking stability. The unit we tested had no problem walking and was even able to maintain stable walking across a small carpet in our lab.
At one point during our tests, we were operating the robot with the charger/power supply plugged in and its battery pack, which normally goes in one of its feet, removed. Any other humanoid we’ve tested would have experienced severe imbalance problems and wouldn’t have been able to walk. But the SPC-101C performed perfectly, almost as if it didn’t realize the battery was missing.
Our Wish List
It goes without saying that any robot at this level requires high- quality English language documentation. Currently, this is available only in Japanese, but the company expects to release a complete English version. The SDK and source code examples along with comments also need to be provided in English to help accelerate acceptance and application development.
A surprising omission was the lack of an integrated microphone. We would really like to use the robot as a mobile avatar. Since it has the ability to move around freely, simulate human body language, speak and transmit what it sees, the absence of any ability to “hear” locally was a small letdown for us.
We would also like to see options offered to allow the robot more direct interaction with its environment; for example, a set of grippers to enable it to pick up and manipulate small objects would be a big plus.
For one of our tests, we developed a small application that reads the status of PS2 game pad control buttons and joysticks and uses them to command the robot. Our next step is to integrate a Nintendo Wii Mote with our applications. Imagine how much fun it would be for you and some of your friends to play robot laser tag swinging your Wii Motes around in the air trying to defeat the other robots.
Another interesting possibility would be a video game that interfaces directly with the SPC-101C and brings the action off the screen and directly into your living room in 3D. Or, how about a real-life version of your Second Life avatar?
In the same way as the Internet browser enabled global communication, sharing and development via the World Wide Web, there’s a very good chance that humanoid robots like the SPC-101C will one day enable us to explore and experience the “World Wide World” through our robotic avatars. ¥
Editor’s note: the robot is only sold fully assembled (no kit option), and the target U.S. sales price will be around $2,800.
Robots-Dreams robotics blog
Words by Lem Fugitt