Over Christmas, I received a series 530 Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot. It cleans the floor really well. But that is all it does. This year at the Consumer Electronics Show, iRobot revealed the prototype AVA. It is, essentially, an open robotic platform. Think of it as an iPad with a body. It has no dedicated purpose and, importantly, it has an API and will run software made by third-party developers.
Yes, apps for robots. This is a wonderful development, one that I predicted in a forthcoming essay in Maryland Law Review. As iRobot founder Colin Angle points out, "If you think of the thousands of apps out there: Which iPad apps would be more cool if they moved?" More importantly, would you not be more inclined to buy a personal robot that came with thousands of programs, with more on the way.
AVA is representative of a sea change in thinking about robotic products. Just a couple of years ago, iRobot's Angle was telling The Economist that general-purpose robots were unlikely and that we would have one robot for each task. Now iRobot is building a multi-purpose platform open to outside programmers.
The change can likely be traced back to the start up Willow Garage, home to the laundry folding, pool playing, beer shagging PR2. Willow Garage is betting that the next "killer app" will come from consumers or other, third-party innovators.
To read about the promise and challenges open robots pose, please check out Open Robotics. Your thoughts warmly welcome.