Personal computer -> Personal robot?

Sorry for the vague subject line, this is a bit off-topic:
I've been thinking for some time about the state of consumer robotics.
Clearly robotics is common in industrial applications, but almost non-existent in the home. Except for Roomba and Scooba, almost nobody uses robots on a daily basis. Somewhere in the future I think this will cease to be true, and robots will be just as common and comfortable as PCs are today.
This parallel is the basis of the question I want to pose. AFAIU, personal computing was similarly non-existent in the 70's, and the PC explosion can largely be traced back to Apple computer and two guys named Steve working in a garage lab. (If my understanding of history is incorrect, please fill me in. I'm only 23, so this is just what I've read.)
So here's the question: what are the odds that the personal robotics revolution will be spurred by somebody building a killer-app machine in their garage? Is it even valid in the first place to say that there are similarities between personal computers and personal robotics?
One major difference I see is that computer technology is consistently being miniaturized, so that as the tech gets more advanced we use fewer materials to produce CPUs, RAM, ASICs, etc. Robots, on the other hand, will probably always require a significant amount of materials for the casing, mechanics, actuators, etc.
Also, I'm not sure if anybody has a clear idea of a what a personal robot would do just yet. Did anybody know in 1980 what a personal computer would be used for? I'm not sure of that answer, but it seems like we have to develop a list of uses for a personal robot if anybody is going to see the appeal in buying one.
Supposing that this robot would be priced the same way PCs original were priced, we have a ceiling of maybe $4000-5000 on the total price, although closer to $2000 would make more sense in today's world. So what would a robot need to do do earn a spot in the home budget?
Well the two most popular home robots right now can vacuum and mop, so those are features that need to be put in. A clever idea would be to decouple the cleaning unit from the drive train and logic unit, perhaps putting a vacuum attachment in a trailer that the robot can pull around and exchange for a mop attachment when it needs to clean hard floors.
Of course, it should also able to charge itself and otherwise run completely free of human intervention for as many as several months at a time. So it needs to be able to find its base station, but it also needs to be able to find any attachments it might need to use. I really think this calls for better navigation. Right now, Roomba just randomly zig-zags around the floor, but it has no idea when its cleaned the room because there's no methodology. A personal robot (PR) needs to be more systematic. (Actually, this indoor navigation problem is one I'm most interested in working on.)
It probably needs to be able to traverse stairs, because we can't expect people to pay $2000 per floor of their house. Cleaning the stairs is probably out of the question, but going up and down them isn't out of reach.
What else could it do? Maybe it can dust objects within its reach? Interface with home computers/security system/X-10 in order to help complete its objectives? (turn off lights when nobody is around, disable a motion sensor if it wants to clean the kitchen at 3am, upgrade its own firmware, report status, etc.) Pick up empty cans and throw them in the trash?
I think we all understand that taking even an extremely simple task like <pick up a can> is nearly overwhelmingly complex to design and build into a robot, so what I'm asking is what are the low-hanging fruit? What will a PR look like when people open the box? Is it possible for one of us in this group to build the prototype in our garage? Or is it just simply too complex/require too much capital for a small group of independents to manage? If it is possible, what are going to be the assistive technologies that make it happen? Standardization is probably one of the keys, as well as putting a little more horsepower into the embedded computers we're using. Battery technology really needs a revolution too. Better actuators (series elastic actuators look promising). What else?
This is something I've been thinking a lot about because I like building things just for the enjoyment of problem-solving and having something to show for when you're done working, but I always have commercial applications in the back of my mind too. Is it too nuts to even think about?
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A lot to think about and a lot of good questions. IMHO, a killer app for robotics could be something as simple as a robot that follows someone around carrying something for them. With the number of disabled persons that are currently in the US alone, a robot that could simply carry things around for them in a simple basket would be killer. The cost would be low. I would think that people that weren't disabled could benefit from this as well. There would be two modes of operation: a follow-me mode where the user would lead the robot, and a remote-control mode where the user follow the robot.
On Sat, 10 Dec 2005 20:51:34 +0000, Mark Haase wrote:

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Randy Hootman wrote:

It would have to be able to negotiate stairs and curbs and get both itself and its load into and out of any car. Then there's the issue of what it does if it gets separated from whoever it is following.

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On Sun, 11 Dec 2005 05:39:19 -0500, J. Clarke wrote:

My wife is disabled and in a wheelchair. How does she and millions of others like her deal with stairs, curbs, and cars? Well, our home has no stairs and I don't think that a simple robot like I am talking about would need to negotiate stairs. Where there are stairs a lot of the time disabled people have ramps. Here in San Jose, CA our streets (at least most of the ones I've seen and my wife negotiates) have slopes at the intersection curbs so that disabled people can negotiate them. Most malls that are multi-leveled have elevators. Buses here in San Jose as well as the public transit system all have ramps that allow disabled access. People that have wheelchairs have cars and deal with the problems that incur because of that. We personally have a wheelchair ramp for our van. With all this said, I have built my wife a small remote controlled robot that she operates remotely in front of her. It has a simple basket on top and can carry around 35 pounds. I will get around to putting a follow-me mode into it one of these days (probably). I think that if the bot got separated, it could just stop and give a yell (either audible or visual) to its owner who would then be responsible to "hook back up". Oh, and I built it for a cost well under $500.

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Randy Hootman wrote:

That sounds like a useful device but it doesn't sound like a "killer app". Everybody who is disabled is not in a wheelchair and many people who are in wheelchairs cannot get their chair into or out of a car without assistance. So the simple device you describe would be useful for that subset of disabled people who are in wheelchairs but are in sufficiently good health otherwise that they can load stuff into a car without difficulty, which I don't think is a large enough percentage of the population to reach any kind of critical mass.
I don't think it would be much help to the thalidomide victim I was talking to the other day who in a foot race could easily run me into the ground and I suspect could have kicked the crap out of me in a fight as well.
Now if it could carry box of books up a flight of stairs with two landings it would have been a godsend to another fellow I know who at 90 just isn't up to that anymore.

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Mark Haase wrote:

That's the big question.

For $5,000 it would have to do a heck of a job. I can pay people to vacuum my house for a *lot* less.

Charging itself is fairly easy. At least in the US power outlets are easy to find visually. Putting a charging circuit into a robot is easy if the robot is big enough.

Why does it need a base station.

You're assuming a general purpose robot: a Rosie the Robot. The Roomba sells because it does one task. Eventually they will produce one that does it well.

Indoor navigation is fairly easy once you can use some vision processing linked to other sensors.
The main problem (as I see it) with indoor navigation is that the obsticles change. I wouldn't want my robot to run over my dog.
Also a crowded environment often puts limits on the robot's size. For example I have a hard limitation of a 16 inch width.

I've thought of a few different ways to deal with stairs with a large robot. I'm waiting on some tools before I try these out.

I don't even trust maids to dust my stuff. However, that would be a truely killer application.

Now you're talking about a smart house. I do believe it would be useful for a domestic robot to interface with such things.
On the other hand, picking up trash would require being able to differentiate between trash on the floor and a robot part on the floor (I'm sloppy).

If you like building, then build. If you can solve these problems, then worry about commercializing it. -- D. Jay Newman http://enerd.ws/robots /
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On Sat, Dec 10, 2005 at 08:51:34PM +0000, Mark Haase wrote:

Many people quote something like this and compare the pretty much non-existant home robotics explosion to that of the PC explosion of the 80's / 90's and its continuing growth into homes.
But you have to ask yourself - are PCs really the driving factor of that? PC's have been popular with businesses since their inception and with the advent of usefull applications like spreadsheets back in the '80s. But in the home, there were just a smattering here and there, by no means were they ubiquitous like today (at least on the US). OK, some people bought PCs even though there was no apparent non-programmer/geek use for them, but the vast majority of homes did not have PCs.
What has really gotten PCs into the homes of late? It's the 'net, I think. So the killer app has really been e-mail and the web. Oh, and games. I'd venture that the vast majority of home computers are used almost exclusively for those purposes - communications, information access and shopping, and games. This year is supposedly one of the largest on-line shopping years ever and many retailers/e-tailers are seeing their e-sales outpase their brick and morter.
So you just need to ask yourself, what will do that for an equivalent mass movement to put robots in the home?
Some people will argue that it's already happened - automatic dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, etc - normal home appliances. Clearly this is where Roomba is intending to make its place.
I don't know. And if I did, I doubt I'd say until my business model was firmly in place :-) But I suspect that like the 'net, it will sort've creep up on us over time while the enabling technologies are invented, become cheaper and cost effective, and allow truly useful machines to be created and purposed to become second nature in our every-day lives.
-Brian
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