Robots, inventors take center stage at Stanford's second Robot Block Party

Academics, commercial robot manufacturers and hobbyists showed off their skills and creations at Stanford's second-annual Robot Block Party.

Jack Hubbard

Robot wonderment. A small visitor to the Stanford Robot Block Party is enchanted.

They seem to do it all by themselves: Vacuum, move ordinary objects from one place to another, even drive a car. But behind every autonomous robot is a human, whether in the role of academic, industrialist or hobbyist.

The people creating the gizmos showed off their machines and the technology behind them at Stanford's second-annual Robot Block Party. Held late last week on campus at the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, the event hosted about a dozen leading commercial robot designers as well as researchers from Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Center for Automotive Research.

The gathering was sponsored by the Law School's Center for Internet and Society as part of National Robotics Week, a week of programs around the country designed to raise awareness about robotics and spark general interest in science, technology and mathematics.

There were plenty of heavyweights, like the PR2 Mobile Manipulator. Hailing from Willow Garage and weighing in with a $400,000 price tag, the machine uses 3-D sensors to navigate the world and has two arms and pincer grips to do any number of tasks through open-source programming.

And there was the much more nimble XV-11, a $400 autonomous vacuum cleaner made by Neato Robotics that uses its laser scanner to map a room and go about its way sucking up dirt from rugs and hardwood floors.

"It does really well with pet hair," said Neato's Dave Wyland. "It took about five years to develop, but it's a pretty straightforward thing."

Then, of course, there were the underdogs. Members of Silicon Valley's HomeBrew Robotics Club were out in force with their mechanical concoctions – bits of pegboard, children's toys and shopping cart wheels strung together with duct tape and bits of wire.

Here is Springy, a triple-decker robot that holds a laptop on one level, processors on another and the guts of two television remote controllers on a third. Hold an infrared beacon (in this case, a heavily altered Pringles potato chip can) in front of it, and it will follow you around.

And here is Camp Peavy, the man who built the contraption 12 years ago.

"No matter what you do in robotics, you're going to find yourself on the cutting edge of the technology," Peavy said. "Any application you come up with on your own probably hasn't been done yet."

It's that spirit of creativity and innovation that the Robot Block Party aims to stoke.

Once the stuff of science fiction, robots are fast becoming everyday items.

"At first, people will have them in their homes to do things like get the laundry, clear the dishes and collect the garbage," said Wayne Gramlich, president of the HomeBrew Robotics Club. "But there's also a crying need to have them do more advanced things, like elder care."

Gramlich says the day will soon come when a robot will pop a meal into a microwave oven and serve it to a patient unable to move on his or her own.

"It's just a matter of time," he said. "Robots are going to be helping us more and more."