Robots Rise With Phone Sensors, Android and the Cloud

Smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks were the keynote features at last week’s Google (s goog) I/O event, but a niche theme I’ve been tracking for over a year found its way to a Google breakout session. The Cloud Robotics discussion ran 40 minutes long and the entire event, complete with working robots that could “see” the audience using a Microsoft Kinect (s msft), is available on video. I watched it last night, and at the risk of sounding inappropriate, experienced a total nerdgasm. The entire set of opening statements sounded exactly like the vision I described last August in a GigaOM Pro piece (subscription required) when discussing how today’s smartphones could one day power tomorrow’s robots.

Google Product Manager Ryan Hickman sets the stage by suggesting that the sensors developed for smartphones, when combined with intelligence and knowledge found in the cloud, can create capable robots. Microphones, cameras, screens and unique new products, such as Microsoft’s Kinect gather data while cloud intelligence can help the robot understand what it sees or hears.

Google Googles is one of many examples Hickman uses to illustrate the concept: A local image is compared to a vast database that tells the robot what it’s looking at, what the object’s attributes are and more. Google’s voice transcription services are another feature that robots can leverage, helping to interpret speech commands. With Google’s many products that leverage search and cloud, the company seems uniquely positioned to user in an era of robotics.

That scenario becomes an even greater possibility due to Google’s launch of rosava, or a pure Java (s orcl) implementation of the Robot Operating System (ROS), aren’t far off from my take last year:

We’ve had both a Roomba and a Scooba in our home — one vacuums, one mops — and several million of these have been sold since 2002. A countless number of entertainment-style robotic toys have hit the scene as well. Back in 2004, we added an R2D2 Interactive Astromech droid to our family and the li’l fella has provided hours of fun: He dances, plays hide-and-seek and of course plays back memorable sound bites from the Star Wars franchise movies.

So robots in the home aren’t necessarily a new concept, but the ones I envision in a not-too-distant future will leverage various technologies of the smartphone, thanks to advances in chips, various sound and sight sensors, wireless broadband and software.

The sensors already exist for such robots, and although you can spend $400,000 for the PR2 robot that’s compatible with rosjava (hey, it can fold your towels!), the $499 TurtleBot kit built atop an iRobot Roomba(s irbt) will work too. There’s also rosjava and Android support for the LEGO Mindstorms NXT robotics set, which my son and I purchased for $279. Cellphones themselves might not power highly capable robots, but the technology inside them, when paired with Android and cloud intelligence, surely will.