Willow Garage's move to sell copies of its PR2 to the public at $400,000 (discounts of up to 30% available to researchers) is being hailed as a turning point in the industry's development. (Image from Willow Garage.)
That's because, unlike most Japanese robots, which are either purpose-built or one-offs, and unlike iRobot (which despite its name is a cleaner and military contracting company), the PR2 is built from an open source software base, with modular hardware.
Willow Garage is not the only open source base on which to build a robot. Urbi went open source last month, with a C++ library and an API. CARMEN is Carnegie-Mellon's open source robotics toolkit. Orocos also offers an open source platform for robotic control.
It's clear, then, that such PC ideas as standards and open platforms are starting to pick up in the robotics industry, which until now has been proprietary, military, industrial and (frankly) a little inaccessible to the computing mainstream.
So what does the industry need now? I would suggest it needs an organization coordinating standards, providing compatibility among the various open source offerings, a base on which everyone can grow and develop.
Something like the World Wide Web Consortium.
The W3C has come in for its share of criticism, in the 16 years since the Web was spun. Its standards process moves slowly. Google's bouncing balls, demonstrating HTML5 and CSS, were meant to speed up an adoption cycle that threatens to drag on another decade.
But the group does serve a purpose. It provides a base. Everything built up from the base refers back to the base. There are differences in how browsers render web pages, but these are minor because the base remains intact. Everyone building web pages innovates from a base of W3C standards.
Robotics needs a base.
Robotics needs a free, open source, universal platform on which to build. We need compatibility among the various open source projects now seeking programmer loyalty. We need a clubhouse in which to meet, a center, a base.
Anyone know how to build one? (Cough, cough, JimZemlin, hack. Excuse me.)