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Humanoid social robot is customizable via Android/ROS SDK

Sep 29, 2017 — by Eric Brown — 883 views
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AvatarMind is prepping a mobile, humanoid “iPal” companion robot with an Android/ROS SDK, natural language capability, and face and emotion recognition.

AvatarMind recently began shipping an early version of its mobile, humanoid iPal robot in China, and is now preparing for a U.S. release. Applications include conversational companionship for elders, special needs children, and hospital patients, as well as educational and retail/hospitality applications.



iPal handshake (left) and an iPal duo
(click images to enlarge)

The 105cm (3.5-foot) tall iPal is capable of speech dialog and understanding, as well as text to speech. The robot can detect and respond to different emotions, and can tell the difference between a question and an answer.

The iPal can also perform face recognition, object tracking and following, and maze running, and can adaptively learn the preferences and habits of members of a host family. The robot can be programmed to sing songs, tell stories, and dance, as well as teach English, math, science, technology and other subjects.



AvatarMind CEO John Ostrem and his iPals at RoboBusiness
(click image to enlarge)

AvatarMind has been showing off an iPal prototype at several shows over the last year, starting with CES 2017. We ran into the robot — and AvatarMind CEO John Ostrem — at the RoboBusiness show in Santa Clara, CA this week, Ostrem told us he would soon announce an early beta release of a U.S. focused Android/ROS SDK for the iPal that will be available to a relatively small number of university and research developers (see farther below). This will be followed by a wider rollout in the U.S. later this year or in early 2018.

The iPal has a semi-humanoid form, including articulated arms and fingers, but there’s no gripping function. Instead of feet, there’s a 4-wheel base. This helps improve safety and keep costs down to the $1,500 and $2,000 range compared to a fully ambulatory design such as Aldebaran’s soccer-playing Nao.


SoftBank Pepper
The iPal is more closely comparable with SoftBank’s Aldebaran-built, Linux-based Pepper, which similarly has a wheeled, humanoid design, as well as a tablet built into its chest, and is aimed at companionship applications. Similar conversational “social” robots that lack mobility include Thecorpora’s Q-bo One and the long delayed Jibo, both of which run Linux.

 
iPal hardware

The iPal runs Android on a quad-core, Cortex-A17 Rockchip RK3288 clocked to 1.8GHz, and has 4GB RAM and 32GB flash. A total of 32 MCUs, as well as a number of DSPs, are housed in “sub boards” and distributed throughout the robot to handle motor and sensor controls, connected via a CAN interface



iPal side and back views
(click images to enlarge)

You can interact with the iPal conversationally with the help of 6x microphones, 5x of which are distributed around the head to enable sound direction detection. You can also connect via the 6-inch touchscreen, which doubles as a standard Android tablet. WiFi and Bluetooth connections let you control and interact with the robot from an app that runs on any Android device. According to Ostrem, there will also be an option to hook up a Microsoft Kinect motion sensing device to control the robot directly with body movements.


iPal key features and specs
(click image to enlarge)

The iPal has a 1.3-megapixel camera in its left eye, and you can upgrade it to add a second camera in the right eye, which would presumably offer stereographic depth sensing. Parents can use the camera and mics to monitor children or elders remotely.


iPal block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

The robot includes 5x touch sensors, 3x IR sensors for short range object detection, and 5x ultrasound sensors for long range detection. There are no facial expressions, but there are programmable LEDs.

An entry-level version of the robot that lacks mobility in the arm or fingers runs on 14 motors. A version with 24 motors includes 10x motors in each arm, with a pair each of shoulder, elbow, and wrist motors, plus one for each of the four fingers. There’s also a non-mobile thumb.

The remaining 4x motors include base motors for locomotion and neck motors for side-to-side and up-down movement. All the motors are 12V models with “magnetic encoders to measure angles” except for the 3V finger motors, says AvatarMind. to improve stability, half the iPal’s 12 kg weight is in the base, where the battery is located.

 
iPal Software

The Android and Robot Operating System (ROS) based AvatarToolKit SDK includes a high-level content editor called AvatarMind Studio that acts as a simulator for creating content and scenarios that run on the iPal. The drag-and-drop interface lets you create a timeline of what the bot can do, and then assign movements and sounds.



AvatarToolkit SDK architecture
(click image to enlarge)



AvatarToolkit Studio motion design (left) and content creation screens
(click images to enlarge)

AvatarMind will provide training and workshops to OEM customers, and offer software development services, tech support, and business consulting. Hardware customizations are also available, including new sensors and custom color highlights. An app store will enable companies to sell customer-specific applications and upgrades.




Above: Video of iPals playing with children



Above: Synchronized dance of multiple iPals

 
Further information

A limited-release developer version of the iPal will be available in October in beta form for selected academics and other customers in the U.S. This will be followed by a wider, but still OEM-focused release in late 2017 or early 2018, with pricing likely to be between $1,500 to $2,000 (with mobile arms and fingers). More information may be found on the AvatarMind iPal website as well as at the AvatarMind Development Platform wiki site.
 

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