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To be sure, high costs have kept robotics technology out of reach for some manufacturers and for some applications. But thanks to the democratization of technology, the robotics industry is achieving cost breakthroughs by piggybacking off an unlikely source: consumer electronics.
For example, 3-D vision once seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea for the robotics industry due to the sky-high price of the sensor technology, Nieves points out.
Then came Microsoft's Xbox 360.
"And all of a sudden, all of us in the industrial robot space are going, 'Aha! I finally have a 3-D sensor that doesn't cost five figures,'" Nieves says.
"You're seeing this a lot. Our business would not be able to proceed without riding the coattails of consumer electronics. That's where our volume comes from. That's where our costdown comes from."
For robots to boldly go to places in the factory where they've never gone before -- and to be more accessible to small and midsize manufacturers -- Nieves believes they need to become as easy to use as a DVD player or toaster oven. And that means robotics manufacturers need to "take the programming element out of the way."
"You need to be able to teach [robots] by demonstration," Nieves says. "You can't be picking up a teach pendant and creating a robot program. You can't be dealing in a robot language. That is inaccessible to most of industry."
As for how to achieve that, the aforementioned Xbox 360 might offer some clues.
Using a motion sensor, the Xbox 360's Kinect technology tracks the user's entire body and creates a digital skeleton of the user based on depth data. "So when you move left or right or jump around, the sensor will capture it and put you in the game," Microsoft's website explains.
The Kinect sensor enables full-body gaming -- without the use of a controller.
How could that translate to the factory floor? Well, last August, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute unveiled a robot that can mimic human movement -- via a hacked Microsoft Xbox Kinect sensor. It took the students all of three weeks to write the software.
"As you start seeing more gadgets, as we put more video capability and such on our consumer electronics -- our tablets, our laptops, our cellphones -- we as an industry get to tap into that," Nieves says. "And what used to be a highly expensive, specialized machine-vision setup, well heck, I can just go down to Best Buy and pick up a couple of webcams and poof -- stereo vision."