InnoRobo was a-buzz about Willow Garage…

Last week, we were visiting the 3rd edition of the InnoRobo Conference — an interesting gathering of robotics companies showing off their wares to both the general public and various investors and corporates.

Willow Garage logoCompanies that showed off their wares seem to breakdown into five general groupings:

  • vacuum cleaning robots (or base robots),
  • larger humanoid robots,
  • military or recon robots,
  • general robotic features that can be used separately or in conjunction with other systems (e.g., arms, hands, cameras),
  • and other aggregators/distributors of robotic solutions.

But, in our exploration of the event, one of our team wore their Willow Garage jacket they owned from a previous era.   In doing so, a great many people would suddenly come up to us and say “How is everything at Willow Garage?” or say “I heard things are changing at Willow Garage, all good?” After informing them of the former employment with Willow, we asked what was causing such a strong reaction to the change they heard about.

Overall, the tone was both wistful and cautious.

Everyone commented on the tremendous impact Willow has had on the robotics community worldwide. One pervasive idea that seemed to permeate the event was that Willow became a sort of Shangri-la of robotics research where researchers could add contributions to the world of robotics and be recognized worldwide.  Since Willow nurtured ROS, the PR2 and other Open Source initiatives (e.g., OpenCV) along with the free-wheeling robotics research that have come out of Willow, everyone said that the Willow Garage community have forever changed the robotics landscape.

Fear of Lemmings

The reason for the concern is around a fear that the loss of funding for Willow would potentially signal to other investors that robotics, as an industry, was cooling and that other investment may not appear.  Additionally, in eschewing the pure research direction of its past, discovery, creativity and innovation might evaporate for the all-mighty profits.

We think that there are a couple of answers to these fears.

First off, as we described before, the changing of direction of funding for Willow Garage is not a bad thing.  One of the allures of Willow was the freedom to create without limits — not tied to specific tasks or goals, only the selection of the researchers who came to Willow determined the potential direction of the research efforts.  But, research for research sake is something that both well-healed philanthropists, governments and (potentially) large religious organizations are best able to support as patrons.  Other entities with constraints often need more tangible returns-on-investment.

For example, Aldebaran is building the A-Lab (headed by long-time friend Jean-Christophe) focusing on, as put in their recent News page, “fundamental and applied research unit dedicated to advances in five keys domains: Artificial Intelligence, Mechatronics, Dynamic Control, Interaction, Systems.”  Instead of allowing for free-wheeling research to the researchers content, the teams at the A-Lab will focus on the constraints the company has — and leverage the resources of the greater organization to test and develop solutions to their business needs.  It would be their hope to grow their business model and apply their capital where the product can grow, not simply in a more exploratory manner.

So, should Willow Garage lose its research arm?

That is an interesting question.  Recently, a group from Willow left to create Unbounded Robotics, which is rumoured to be creating an alternative research robot.  Additionally, with the connections it has built as both a custom manufacturing operation and a sales function with regard to the PR2, the remaining teams at Willow can more than likely create another robotic development company.  But research needs funding — and we all know that pure research funding is not an easy thing.

Should the government get involved?  The National Robotics Initiative is happening and is getting a public/private partnership going to jump-start the efforts.  Should wealthy interests get involved beyond the original investors?  Paul Allen famously created Interval Research with Dr. David Liddle which was famously given the request “give me less R and more D”.

We think that there are a number of people who can help support the mission of Willow Garage if they choose to support the research arm.  As idealists, we think that Willow should have the chance to have the research arm revamp and revise — this time with researchers and developers that work in tandem and feed off each other like Sergey, Larry and Scott did.

Will someone assist in the grand vision and keep the engine of robotic innovation going?

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