Researchers at a recent Toronto conference offered rides on a virtual-reality tricycle and sent robots hopping across a trade-show floor in a demonstration of leading-edge technology they say will someday have many practical applications.
Experts from across Canada flocked to the ninth annual PRECARN-IRIS Conference to network with their peers, update each other on their latest developments and look for corporate sponsorship.
PRECARN Associates Inc. is a consortium of Canadian companies, research bodies and government agencies devoted to intelligent systems research. IRIS, the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, is a federally-funded network of centres of excellence sponsored by PRECARN. Together, the two organizations have done $150 million worth of research over the last decade.
One of the show’s highlights was the technology showcase, where 30 research teams, many representing Canadian universities, showed off their latest projects. The following is a sample of their work.
One of the biggest crowd pleasers at the two-day conference were Scout I and Scout II – a pair of four-legged, hopping robots.
Martin Buehler, associate professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the Intelligent Centre of Machines at McGill University in Montreal, said the robots could be the vanguard for an army of dog-sized machines, ready to go where no man or woman can.
“These are machines for bad places,” Buehler said. “(And) our goal is to get real-legged machines into the real world.”
He said firefighters and police departments could use the robots, equipped with cameras, to investigate hazardous areas, help disarm bombs or even carry weapons like pepper spray. Buehler notes that small robots also make excellent museum, art gallery or theme park visitor guides.
The robots were developed by McGill’s Ambulatory Robotics Laboratory. Powered by four motors, the prototypes are cheaper no-frills versions of earlier legged robots – and are in direct contrast to other robots which get around on tracks similar to those used on tractors. Buehler said the legs enable the robots to navigate over large obstacles without tripping. They also let them turn, side-step and climb steps.
“It can actually go where people go. That’s the idea, ” he explained. “And once it gets into a groove, it goes for a pretty long distance.” Scout II can hop at a top speed of one metre per second.
Unlike Scout I, each leg on the newer-generation Scout II has a joint. It also has on-board gyroscopes, laser range finders and other gadgets to help the robot’s controller – who operates the robot via a radio control device installed on a laptop computer — gauge the robot’s pitch, attitude and distance to the ground.
Buehler is currently looking for industry sponsors.
Another trade floor draw was the virtual-reality tricycle. Although it looks and sounds like a big toy, Laurence Harris, associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, said the device will help his team solve some very sophisticated problems.
The tricycle is outfitted with sensors to help Harris’ team determine the role played by leg movement and visual- and inner ear-related cues in the sense of human self-motion.
Tricycle riders don a virtual-reality headset, which displays a corridor, and as they ride sensors send information about the motion of the wheels and handlebars to a small SGI server attached to the tricycle.
“Then having got that information we can apply it back into the virtual-reality world to design more convincing and accurate and comfortable worlds for representing virtual information in a serious way — for example, controlling remote robots,” Harris said.
People tend to become lost in virtual worlds because the sense of being in a particular spot is hard to duplicate. Harris said the technology can be used to help organizations explore dangerous areas more reliably, prepare astronauts for the disorientation associated with zero-gravity and, not to be discounted, improve virtual reality games.
Like many of the PRECARN show demonstrations, the technology isn’t yet ready for commercial use, although Harris said he’s looking for corporate sponsorship.
ADDING SOME FEEL
One drawback of virtual worlds is that while they are full of visual information, they are rarely stimulating for non-visual senses. But Dr. Manuel Cruz, a post-doctoral fellow at McGill, is doing his bit to enhance the virtual experience
Cruz is helping develop a “tactile display” – a device that will let computer users literally feel the texture of virtual environments. Instead of using a traditional mouse, Cruz hopes that one day tactile display users will be able to navigate by touch.
“What we are trying to do is let you [run]…your finger over the object and make you feel like you were feeling that texture,” he said.
The tactile prototype is a box with a small, narrow metallic protrusion that guides a cursor along four black and white boxes displayed on a PC monitor. As users glide their fingers over the protrusion, they feel either a smooth or rough surface.
Cruz predicts that one day computer users will be able to feel their way through drop-down menus, regular text, complex medical images, computer design models or even virtual fabric.
He said one day doctors using tactile technology may be able to “feel” a patient to make a long-distance diagnosis.
However, Cruz admits any commercial application of tactile technology is five to 10 years away.