Intel Euclid Makes Robots Smarter Than Sideshow Gimmick
Intel's Euclid is more than just a fancy camera. It's the evolution of decades of development around the most critical piece of the robotic equation: the software.
Hassan had long been a big believer in open source, so the team started focusing on a common operating system that roboticists everywhere could use to stop wasting time “reinventing the wheel” on every research project. In tandem with the Robotics Operating System (ROS), Willow was building robots to run it on.
In 2011, once ROS had officially infected the robotics community and the initial robot units it built had been distributed, Willow started to focus on other projects and spin-offs. The company started exploring market opportunities for autonomous bots and educating the team about entrepreneurship. Google acquired three of the for-profits as part of its ambitious robotics buying spree.
One of the ideas in particular fascinated Hassan. The team had hacked together an iPad-on-wheels to allow a remote employee to zoom around the office, which it refined into a robot called “Beam.” The possibilities of telepresence (think videoconferencing with robots) inspired Hassan and he spun-off a team called Suitable Technologies in 2011, taking a bunch of WG employees with him.
That meant that from that point on, Hassan was funding two companies. Willow Garage was burning about $20 million a year. He had realized that getting autonomous personal robots into people’s homes was still a long way off (while ROS could support countless functions, the cost of creating the hardware to handle something even as seemingly simply as picking up an article of clothing was magnitudes too expensive). He finally decided to pull out his investment in 2013 and focus all of his resources on the more near-term telepresence market with Suitable.
“I saw people starting to get restless, so I just decided to shut things down and go, ‘You’re free!’” Hassan says. “And what happened next was, everyone started companies.”
Almost everyone who stayed at Willow until the shutdown ended up either starting their own robotics company or joining one founded by fellow coworkers. Cousins, for example, now runs a company called Savioke, which makes robots that can deliver items to hotel guests.
“Willow went down but now we’re all like the Phoenix,” says Mirza Shah who worked at WG during its last year and a half, and is the co-founder and CTO of a robotics company called Simbe. “We’re out there building new things, stronger than before.”
All told, Hassan says he poured more than $80 million into Willow Garage. But he considers the cost well worth the reward of robotics progress. And, as always, his sights are set on the future.
Hassan’s investment is paying major dividends; last year alone, more than $150 million of venture capital funding went to businesses that use Willow’s ROS.
“A large portion of current roboticists in the world have one degree of separation with Willow Garage,” says Maya Cakmak, another former employee. “I think in the future, when we look back, Willow Garage will be what Bell Labs or Xerox Parc was for personal computers, for robotics.”
This surge has opened up the ROS ecosystem in a way that puts it on the path to becoming the Linux of robotic software. About 9 million ROS packages were downloaded last year, and it found its way into systems ranging from the DARPA Robotics Challenge (where 18 teams used ROS), to NASA’s Robonaut. ROS may soon find itself to be a household name the same way Google’s Android has for smart phones, tablets and IoT.
Brains, even robotics ones, have to count for something. Until then, here’s another stupid bot trick.
This article was republished with permission from Oliver Mitchell’s popular blog Robot Rabbi.