Teleportation became a bit more real on Saturday when a German team of data scientists and engineers won the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, California, with a four-wheeled, humanoid robot named NimbRo.
But in this form of teleportation, rather than transporting a human to a remote location, vision, hearing, and a sense of touch were wirelessly transmitted from a humanoid robot to a remote human operator who then directed the robot to complete a series of complex tasks.
“Telepresence and avatar technology will be an essential part of human progress in the decades to come,” said David Locke, ANA Avatar XPRIZE’s executive director said in a statement following the conclusion of the four-year competition.
Sponsored by All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan’s largest airline, the $10M competition called upon teams to develop physical, human-operated robotic avatar systems that can execute tasks and replicate a person’s senses, actions, and presence in a remote location in real time. The avatars, also referred to as telepresence systems, enable people to apply their skills over great physical distances.
The NimbRo team took home $5 million while Pollen Robotics of France and Team Northeastern of Boston, Massachusetts, won $2 million and $1 million respectively.
Contest judges, not members of the competing teams, operated the robots from a separate room, maneuvering them along a course filled with obstacles to complete a variety of tasks.
In the end, the dexterity of robot hands and haptics – the ability to feel what the robotic hands were touching – proved the most critical elements in the competition. The robots were required to pick up a power drill and use it to unscrew a bolt and then reach into a space, out of the robot’s view, and feel a series of objects to determine which had the roughest texture.
“The two-way communication for haptics is the really critical part of this,” said Jacki Morie, an advisor to the competition, in a conversation before the competition finals. “It’s how this competition differentiates itself from almost everything else going on in robotics today.”
American entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis founded the XPrize in 1994 to fund and operate a $10 million incentive competition intended to inspire a new generation of private passenger-carrying spaceships. The competition helped spark the private space industry. Since then, the organization has expanded into other domains to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition.
ANA sponsored the competition as an extension of their business of connecting people. The company launched a start-up, avatarin, in 2020 with a mission to expand humanity’s potential by offering new abilities through avatars.
Telepresence could one day allow people to interact at a distance without having to physically travel anywhere. Dr. Morie suggested that eventually people could don haptic suits and visit loved ones through a robotic avatar and feel as if they are truly there. “So that if you touch something with your robot in the physical world, at a distance, you are feeling it wherever you are controlling that robot,” said Dr. Morie.
The current competition did not draw on machine learning, but Dr. Morie said that eventually AI would be critical to making these avatars work at a distance.
“We’re doing the foundational stuff right now,” she said. “But once you have latency in the mix, you’re going to have to look at AI solutions to counteract that latency.”
Out of the 99 teams from around the world who registered in 2018, 17 teams from 10 countries competed in front of a live audience over the two-day event that concluded Saturday.