Here at Willow Garage, we're accustomed to robots roaming the hallways. Robots are our tools (and occasionally, entertainment), and we always know what's coming when we hear the familiar drone of casters down the hall. Recently, however, we can't be so sure. The newest addition to our building sports a single PR2 caster and resembles a scrawny metal stick figure -- until you notice the smiling, human face gazing back at you from the mounted computer monitor. Usually it greets you by name. This new addition is named Texas, and it's driven by Dallas. In Indiana.
Dallas Goecker is a Willow Garage electrical engineer living in Indiana, and Texas is Dallas' new telepresence robot here in the office. Dallas is Willow Garage's first telecommuter and it's only fitting that he telecommutes by robot. Dallas teleoperates his surrogate around the entire building, attending meetings, asking questions, working collaboratively, and, sometimes, taking lunch breaks with us. Like PR2, Texas sometimes loses wireless connectivity, but ultimately, Texas is a co-worker, not just a tool. We make small talk when passing in the hall, ask work-related questions, and politely offer to share our food, albeit, sarcastically. Through this telepresence robot, Dallas has been able to integrate himself with the rest of the company, and really become a member of the team despite his location.
Dallas, along with Curt Meyers, built the first prototype of Texas by raiding the spare-parts drawer at Willow Garage. They used an old prototype PR2 caster, a car battery, a leftover monitor, and some Bosch framing to build the basic structure. They added off-the-shelf speakers, microphone, web camera, and a laser range finder. They were able to use the same ROS software that we're using to build the PR2: motor controllers, navigation stack, and teleoperation software. All they had to change was the "robot model", which describes the basic structure of the robot.
Texas may not have all the bells and whistles of the PR2, but it shows us the new avenues and potential of our modular hardware and software. It may be built out of leftovers, but its simple capabilities have profoundly changed how we are able to interact with Dallas.