Feb 042006

Robosapien RS2 Media Robot

I’m a little bit late posting today so by now just about everybody else has already reported this, but in case you missed it (or in case NeuralDump is your sole source for news), You-Review.net has posted an interview with Mark Tilden, the controversial roboticist who’s responsible for the immensely popular line of WowWee robots including the Robosapien, the Robosapien V2, the Roboraptor, and the Robopet. The interview was conducted via Blackberry over the course of a week and covers Tilden’s thoughts on robot building and the role of microprocessors in simple robots, and offers some details about the new models announced at CES earlier this year.

Born in the UK and raised in Canada, Mark Tilden attended the University of Waterloo before landing a job developing robots for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He now works for Hong Kong based WowWee Toys where his BEAM robotic system found a home in the now best-selling Robosapien robot and its offspring. BEAM (Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, and Mechanics) robots differ from traditional robots in that they use simple analog circuits and sensors instead of microprocessors and complex AI. They are usually simpler in design and more limited in their capabilities although these limitations are generally offset by their sturdiness and performance reliability.

OK. The truth is that a good portion of the interview consists of terse, cryptic answers which may be a result of the medium (Blackberry) or it just may be Tilden’s personality. It is entertaining nonetheless, especially to see him compare living in Hong Kong to being in the movie Bladerunner, certainly a far cry from my rural Pennsylvania digs. After covering his youth, his time at Los Alamos, and his move to Hong Kong to work for WowWee, he dodges an opportunity to explain BEAM and takes a jab at programmers both in the same answer. Then the interview gets really interesting.

When asked about Lego Mindstorms NXT and the trend towards software controlled design, he says, “The new ‘Mindstorms NXT’ stuff is right on the ball of course, grown up in both style and execution. I just hope someone’ll notice the new NXT block fits perfectly as an RS2 backpack.”

On the other hand, I wonder if he’s noticed the groundbreaking worker of robot hacker Sean Jefferies, aka Sprocket2Cog, who’s already had limited success integrating the original Mindstorms RCX controller with a Robosapien. Jefferies work isn’t mentioned when Tilden lists the best mods he’s seen, so its safe to say he doesn’t know of the mods which clearly belongs at the top of the list. The bigger point is that there are already a group of people who recognize the potential for the hardware when interfaced with a more sophisticated controller.

The interview ends strong with Tilden giving some straight forward, detailed specs of the forthcoming RSMedia robot, the most powerful and hackable robot WowWee has ever produced. It will be powered by an ARM9 core running Linux (!), it will have built-in SD, USB, microphone, VGA color camera, 3D stereo amplifier with woofer, and color LCD. It will have a core set of actions covering the basics but will be completely configurable with users able to add their own apps to the kernel.

Although the ARM9 controller and Linux OS seem to fly in the face of the BEAM philosophy, Tilden explains that the BEAM system is actually a complimentary, if not core, technology of the robot. It is, in essence, an instinctual nervous system never intended to be an actual brain. The evolutionary process has been intentional. He describes the RS2 as, “a self-stable, 2 foot tall, hackable multi-motor humanoid with a mostly empty head,” and goes on to say, “What my research found still intrigues though, the fact that the brains can be minimal if the body is competent.”

This interview provides interesting glimpse into the mind of the man behind a phenomenon. A man whose work has resulted in affordable (and interesting) robots available to the average consumer and is fueling the imagination of robot hackers the world wide.

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