MIT Engineers Create a Robot Avatar You Control Through VR

Monday, 02 October 2017 - 7:28PM
Technology
Robotics
Virtual Reality
Monday, 02 October 2017 - 7:28PM
MIT Engineers Create a Robot Avatar You Control Through VR
YouTube/MITCSAIL
We're all eager for technology to get to the point where we can pilot robot avatars from the comfort of our own homes.

There are myriad uses for this technology - it would take a lot or risk out of emergency service work and other dangerous jobs, and it would allow people to essentially travel to a different city or country and have a virtual presence among colleagues.

It could be used to examine locations that humans can't comfortably experience, such as radioactive environments, allow for complex dental surgery on a tiny scale, or it could be used to give human workers strength far beyond their own natural abilities. Also, it's just plain cool.

All of which is why researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have built a fledgling robot avatar, by combining remote control robotics with a virtual reality headset, allowing users to see through the robot's eyes while also controlling its mechanical arms. It's nicknamed "Baxter," and you can see it in action below:



The sophistication of this technology is impressive - with this control system, it's possible to pull off some fiddly actions, such as picking up screws using the robot's thin pincer-like fingers.

And this set-up is actually quite low-tech compared to much of the research that MIT is putting into telepresence robots - it's simply a camera within the robot, broadcast to a VR headset, with an extra layer of virtual space created between the user and the robot's vision that creates the impression that everything is taking place in a small room.

The VR "room" seems designed to make it look like the user is a tiny human, piloting the robot from inside its head, like one of the little aliens from the original Men in Black. The user is able to reach out and grab controls in front of them that correspond with the controls of the robot, and using this VR rig to reduce outside distractions significantly increases accuracy over more advanced attempts to create the same kind of interface in the real world.

If this technology can be perfected, there's a lot of opportunity for it to be used for all kinds of practical applications. These robots don't need to be human-sized, so the avatars can be teeny tiny for performing surgery, or enormous for working on building construction - just so long as the person behind the controls can be convinced to repress the urge to go full Mechagodzilla on the local infrastructure.

Of course, all of this has limited long-term viability. It's all fair and good developing a remote control robot system for a human to operate, but in a few short decades (if it even takes that long) it'll just be easier to get a robot to perform these tasks without human direction.

At least, if nothing else, this technology could revolutionize paintball. Why shoot each other with little paint blobs as a human, when instead you could pilot a T-1000 lookalike robot?
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