Luna Personal Robot Brings You Telepresence and More for $3k

Can It Be a Game Changer?
, May 12, 2011, by Aaron Saenz  —  A few months ago a video was leaked of a mysterious robot. Now, after its official launch I can tell you that the mystery bot is none other than the Luna from RoboDynamics. RoboDynamics is a major innovator in telepresence, and Luna is a beautiful 5’2″ (157cm) tall robot capable of telepresence on its 8 inch LCD touchscreen face. Yet Luna is also much more than that. It’s RoboDynamics leap into the personal robotics fray, and it’s not only open source it’s also affordable. Available in the fourth quarter of 2011, Luna will only set you back $3000. Cheap? No. But that’s way less than other telepresence robots, and it could be just the right price to attract a league of developers who want to take advantage of Luna’s App Store as an emerging market. That’s right, RoboDynamics isn’t trying to build another household robot, they’re aiming to create the commercial robotics platform that will revolutionize the way we use personal robots. Check out RoboDynamics’ new baby in the videos and pictures below. Will Luna be the robot equivalent of the iPhone? It certainly has serious potential, but the bigger question is, is the personal robot of our dreams near? Well…I think it’s getting closer.

First off, let’s talk about Luna, because she is one good looking bot. Designed by SchultzeWorks, Luna stands over five feet tall, has a slick white and gray shell with thin metal arms that can support a tray. She reminds me a little of the Serge butler robot from SyFy’s Caprica. Her specs are satisfying, but not mindblowing as befits a robot you want to mass produce for $3k: 2 GHz processor, nVidia9000M graphics card, 8 GB flash memory (which you can upgrade to 32GB), WiFi, 8 MPx camera with digital zoom, 8 inch touchscreen LCD, 3 microphone array, speakers, 10 bit wheel sensors, PrimeSense’s 3D sensor (like the Kinect!), and its battery should last between 4-8 hours and recharge in about the same time. There’s a carrying handle on the back so you can easily lift the 65 lb (~30kg) bot and take it up stairs or in your car if you need to use the HOV lane.


Luna by RoboDynamics is world’s first personal robot designed for mass adoption



But didn’t I say that RoboDynamics wants Luna to be a platform, not a novelty? Yep. Luna has seven Luna Expansion Ports (LXP) each with its own USB, 12V supply, 5V supply, and mounting holes. You can hack on your own hardware or, hopefully, third party developers will begin selling modular hardware that you can purchase and plug in with little difficulty. Already RoboDynamics plans on offering BlueTooth, 3G, and 4G hardware upgrades custom designed for use with LXP. On the software side, Luna will run the aptly named LunaOS, which is an open source system that includes Poky Linux, the Robot Operating System (ROS), and other open packages.


Posable arms could make Luna a decent waiterbot.

There are still some important unanswered questions. I’ve yet to see Luna navigate a crowded room, so I don’t know how it will handle real human environments. Ditto for telepresence – what’s the picture quality going to be like? The LunaOS website is up, but it’s really sparse at the moment and I haven’t had a chance to the review the SDK. We’re early in the process, so we may have answers to these concerns soon.

So there you have Luna in a nutshell. She’s a tall, good looking machine that’s untested but open to new things. RoboDynamics will be auctioning off the first 25, and selling another 975 first come first serve at $3k, with delivery before end of year. If enough of those early adopters are developers I think you could see a host of new apps and hardware hacks available to the general public by the time Luna’s price drops enough to make it a retail item (supposedly we’re looking at an ultimate target of $1000 within a year or so, but that’s unofficial).

Why should you care? That’s a damned good question.

Look, we’ve seen plenty of household robots that cost way less than three grand. Some will clean your floors, others will purr as you pet them. We’ve also seen open source robots that are way more impressive in their specs (Willow Garage’s PR2 for instance). But Luna is a new breed. For starters, she may be a telerobot killer. Anybots is selling their QB for $15k. Now the QB does telepresence really well, but that’s five Lunas – robots that not only do telepresence but that can easily expand and upgrade! If you were an office manager, which would you choose? Even if you look elsewhere in the telerobotics ecosystem, you’ll see that $3k is pretty much the cheapest price tag on a professional-level device.

Of course, telepresence is just the beginning, because Luna is aiming for a very important market: people who want real robots that do some worthwhile tasks. Vacuum bots are great, but they’re minor appliances, like microwaves. Cuddly/friendly robots like Pleo, Aibo, etc are amazing cutting edge toys, but toys all the same. Willow Garage’s PR2 is a titanic open source development platform…but it’s $400k and aimed at major research institutions. Luna is a robot that, potentially, could be a development platform at the consumer level. A robot that provides security, or telepresence, or hospitality, or anything else you can program it to do. With those arms maybe it could even wait tables. Luna isn’t the first personal robot, not by a long shot, but it’s possibly the first personal robot that will really matter.

It’s not alone. Not by a long shot. We’ve recently seen three other worthwhile competitors enter into the same market. Willow Garage created the TurtleBot ($1200) an easily hackable rolling bot with a Kinect sensor and an iRobot base powered by a laptop. BiliBot ($1200) is a similar build but with an arm that can actually pick up things. iRobot’s AVA is a pedestal that can easily navigate in a human environment and whose head is any tablet computer you care to attach to it. Colin Angle recently announced that the AVA will go on sale this year. While I’m uncertain as to the nature of AVA’s OS, TurtleBot and BilliBot are open source just like Luna. All three of them will be able to access code on ROS, which (as my robot engineer friends like to tell me) isn’t the most amazing library out there, but it’s pretty damn good. And ROS is growing everyday. So, right now you have two open source personal robots that can work as development platforms and by Q4 you’ll have one more that fits the bill (and maybe AVA as well?).

I think these bots are a sign that a change is coming. Or, at least, that a change is being attempted. As we saw with personal computing back in the 70s and 80s, rapid development of a technology that can be adopted into everyone’s household takes two things: a shared set of standards that developers and producers can agree upon and build together, and (at least) one kickass platform that will attract everyone to the concept. I think we’re seeing those factors gather now. Linux, ROS, and other open software systems are proving they can serve in robotics as a (loose) set of standards that will evolve over time. Now all we need is a kickass platform or two. Could be TurtleBot, BiliBot, or Luna. The first two are cheaper (though Luna could drop as we’ve mentioned above), TurtleBot is backed by Willow Garage, BiliBot has a gripping arm, and Luna is actually tall and sexy with easy expansion ports (that sounded dirty, didn’t it).

I’m not sure if any of these bots, AVA included, will jumpstart the evolution of the personal robot market, but I’m really excited that they’re all showing up in 2011. To me that means the industry is recognizing that now is the right time to invest in this concept and to bring it to market as soon as possible. Better still, as open source seems to be the norm, I have high hopes that these platforms will help build and improve on one another even as they compete. Who cares which of these guys is the real iPhone of robotics. The important thing is that we could be at the very early stages of a new trend in the field. The last decade saw the emergence of the smart phone, and now the personal robot may be ready for its big premiere. So welcome to the world, Luna. Whether or not you’re the platform that does it, I think you’re another sign that the game of robotics is about to change forever.





Easy carrying handle.



Luna’s made to hack, here’s its main access panel.


Open source robotics will conquer the world… but first it has to conquer fads from the 80s.



Did you think your job was safe with a college degree?, May 12, 2011, by Aaron Saenz  —  “Welcome to your new home, now please solve this Rubik’s Cube.” – when you’re a robot, people greet you in some funny ways. No sooner had Willow Garage’s PR2 shown up to the University of Ulster than they set it to work…er, play. Chris Burbridge and Lorenzo Riano of the Cognitivie Robotics Group taught their newly arrived PR2 to solve a Rubik’s Cube completely autonomously. Place the cube in the robot’s hand and it scans, solves, and shifts the puzzle until it is finished. Watch the PR2 master this icon of the 80s in the video below. Little demos like this are just cute introductions to a much more serious endeavor. As one of the growing number of research institutions using the PR2 as an open source development platform, the Cognitive Robotics Group at the University of Ulster is helping create the next generation of personal robots, one piece of code at a time.

I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve seen robots solve Rubik’s Cube way faster than the PR2…and they were made out of Lego. In fact, the PR2 is slow enough that in order to keep this video a reasonable length (<2 minutes or so) they gave it a really easy cube to solve. Yet the following demonstration is remarkable when you consider everything the robot is doing. It has to rotate the cube and scan its surface, find a (potentially sub-optimal) solution, and then translate that solution into physical movements for its hands. That’s a lot of work for a measly 2 minute demo, but it highlights just how complete the PR2 is: manual manipulation, sensing, calculation, and translation of digital models into physical actions. All autonomously. Not bad for an opening act – either for the PR2 or Burbridge and Riano.

Willow Garage’s PR2 is one of dozens of bots using the Robot Operating System (ROS). This open source library is the digital soul to the PR2′s metallic body. As the University of Ulster, and the more than 15 other institutions using the PR2, continue to innovate its code on ROS, they’ll be opening up many opportunities for their work to earn compound interest. Code developed by one team can be cannibalized, optimized, and reused by any other team. The same goes, in a slightly more limited way, for the hundreds of developers using ROS on platforms other than the PR2. The arrival of the newest metal member of the Cognitive Robotics Group speaks to the possibility that personal robots could be undergoing an accelerated growth in the near future fueled by the open source community. That’s pretty exciting.

Speaking of excitement, I’ll leave you with this video the Cognitive Robotics Group made of the PR2′s arrival last month. For anyone who has unwrapped a long awaited gift, the reaction will seem very familiar. Keep up the enthusiasm guys, and push yourselves to create even better demos. Next time I want to see the PR2 throwing Pop Rocks into a soda can, dancing to Thriller, or following the flashing lights of Simon. I’m just going with the 80s theme here…

[screen capture and video credits: University of Ulster]
[source: University of Ulster, Willow Garage Blog]


WillowGarage PR2 Solves the Rubik’s Cube

Q1 2011 was a good time for Complete Genomics as they continue to expand their

human genome sequencing services.
, May 12, 2011, by Aaron Saenz  —  The company that could bring about the revolution in human genome sequencing is showing early signs of success in 2011. Complete Genomics is hoping to use a laser-tight focus on human genomes, and efficiencies of scale, to make it the dominant force in human sequencing. They recently released their first quarter report for 2011 and the numbers looks good. 600 genomes were sequenced in Q1 alone, and revenue was at $6.8 million. While still running at a loss, Complete Genomics is closing the gap, has ready cash on hand ($68+ million), and there are over 2000 genomes on back order. The stock is up (NASDAQ:GNOM), and the Silicon Valley startup has announced it will offer 4.5 million shares in the near future. Not only that, but Complete Genomics is increasing its production rate, and lowering its costs. They could hit 1200 genomes per month, 4000+ genomes sequenced, and $5000 per genome by the end of the year. In almost every metric, Complete Genomics is doing well and looking to perform even better in the near future. Didn’t we tell you that these guys knew what they were doing?

Let’s hit a few more numbers released in the report:

  • Revenue for Q1 2011 was up – $6.8 M as compared to $0.3 M for Q1 2010.
  • Costs for Q1 2011 were up – $18.9 M as compared to $14.6 M for Q1 2010
  • Net Loss was down for Q1 2011 – $12.5 M from $14.3 M for Q1 2010.
  • Complete Genomics sequenced 600 genomes in Q1 2011, with current estimated capacity at 400 genomes per month.
  • Median turn around time was 70 days.
  • Required sample size was cut in half – 7.5 micrograms from 15 micrograms.
  • Order backlog was up for Q1 2011 – ~2100 as compared to ~1000 for Q4 2010. (That’s a big increase!)
  • The value of the backlog is estimated at $15 M over the next 12 months.
  • Average price was $9.5k per genome for small orders, and $5k-$7.5k for large orders in the hundreds of genomes.
  • They have released 69 fully sequenced human genomes into the public domain, which have been downloaded 750 times (this is much larger than the current customer base of 45 groups).

To accompany their Q1 report, Complete Genomics also held a phone press conference in which they made several really interesting projections for the future:

  • They expect to increase production capacity to 800-1200 genomes per month by year’s end with improvements on existing equipment.
  • Each of their current instruments can handle about 1 genome per day. Next generation equipment, to arrive in 2012, could handle 10 genomes per day, expanding production greatly.
  • Turn around time could be down to 30 days by 2012.
  • The second quarter should see about 900 more genomes sequenced.
  • The total number of genomes sequenced in 2011 is expected to reach 4000!
  • Average selling price has been falling since Q4 2010 and is expected to be near $5000 by year’s end.

We’ve made it no secret that Singularity Hub likes Complete Genomics. They made some thrilling claims in the past (sequencing a million genomes, falling below the $5000 price, etc) and while their time tables have stretched forward a bit, they’re still expanding at an accelerated rate. The core of their strategy seems pretty simple: find one area of sequencing and outperform everyone in that field. Complete Genomics does nothing but human genome sequencing and they push themselves to produce more at lower prices. In the phone press conference, CEO Cliff Reid directly stated that they are interested in aggressively improving scale by driving prices down. As prices fall, demand goes up in a way that is more than commensurate. This means that Complete Genomics is going to keep pushing us towards lower sequencing costs. I fully expect that in a few years we’ll see the first $1000 genome, and a few years after that we could have a $100 genome arrive. In my opinion, Complete Genomics is likely the company to get us to that point.

Once genomes become cheap to sequence we could finally reach the genetics promised land that we’ve been hoping for since the first human genome was sequenced a decade ago. In order for that to happen we’ll need hundreds of new discoveries by researchers all over the globe. Luckily, those are exactly the kind of people forming Complete Genomics’ current customer base. As Reid and his company continue to provide these scientists with genomes they will eventually be able to translate loose genetic correlations into actionable medical practices. It’s going to take years for that research to be performed, but Complete Genomics’ cheap wholesale sequencing is already moving us towards that direction. In the phone conference, Reid mentioned that they were already seeing themselves written in grant proposals. That’s a good sign that the scientific community is gearing up to take advantage of the services Complete Genomics provides.




The stock is up after Complete Genomics announced their Q1 report on May 9th.


It’s not all roses, of course, there are a few thorns. Illumina’s patent infringement lawsuit against Complete Genomics is still ongoing, although the number of disputed patents has dropped from three to only one. (Reid stated that his company was going to continue to fight the lawsuit strongly.) The stock has been on a tear recently, basically doubling since March. While that is mostly a good thing it may mean that it’s slightly overpriced at the moment. Which may be why Complete Genomics is looking to offer 4.5 million more shares – raise money (~$70M) while the getting is good. Also, the stock may be up but they’ve really only reached the levels that Complete Genomics was hoping to set at their IPO (originals plans were for $12-$14, but that was lowered to $8). I’m also curious as to whether or not they really need their upcoming offering to fuel their growth – their current cash holdings of $68.8 M include $20 M in loans, so it could go either way. So overall…some good financial prospects, but I’d say their future rests on the continued performance of their technology seducing more investors as revenue is unlikely to meet costs for years to come.

Overall, however, I think Complete Genomics is a winner – a winner whose coat tails are big enough for everyone to hold onto. Their nanoball array approach to sequencing isn’t going to be the ultimate technology in the field, but it’s the first that’s proven to be able to scale up so quickly and efficiently. As the company continues to increase production and expand their customer orders we’ll see prices drop until the costs for sequencing a genome represent a reasonable investment for every individual. At the rate Complete Genomics is improving, that future is going to happen in this decade, perhaps even by 2015. The beautiful thing is that those falling prices are enabling the scientific research that will make sequencing yourself a smart investment. How copacetic. Good luck to Complete Genomics, and to all their competitors out there as well. Whoever wins the race to be the leader in human genome sequencing, we’re all going to rake in the benefits together.

[image credit: Complete Genomics, Google Finance]
[source: Complete Genomics Press Release and Press Conference Call