As with many international trade shows, CES is a place where you're bound to bump into familiar faces. In my case, I regrouped with Walker, Ubtech's humanoid robot, who was kind enough to grab me a can of Coke and Pringles last year. Today, this five-foot-tall machine doesn't look any different, though it has gained a software update that not only lets it walk around more quickly but also gives it a robust self-balancing capability, which in turn allows it to lift heavier objects.
Walker's updated software is the result of continued AI training on its original hardware -- including the same optical sensors across its body, along with 36 high-performance actuators in its limbs. Before the team could boost the walking pace, the focus had been on the robot's sense of gravity and naturalness of its walking motion. Truth be told, the boosted pace still didn't quite match that of a normal human, but I did notice that Walker had less sideway sway while delivering a basketful of snacks to me.
I was more impressed by the robot's newfound sturdiness. Last year, I was only allowed to gently push Walker while it was walking (and the engineers were noticeably worried by my enthusiasm), but this time, Ubtech allowed me to push the machine with great force while it was stationary. I didn't go over the top, but I could definitely feel how Walker resisted with counteraction through its legs, so it would have been hard to topple it.
Based on the same principle, Walker's arms could lift more weight than before, even if one side was heavier than the other. In a video demo, Walker was seen carrying a 10kg load on his left wrist and a lighter six-kilogram load on the right with no problem. When the demonstrator removed each load individually, Walker barely moved.
Such improved steadiness also allowed Walker to pull off some basic "yoga" poses for me to follow. I say "yoga" because those were clearly not real yoga poses, as confirmed by a yoga-instructor friend of mine. The closest one was the single-leg, forward-reaching pose that somewhat resembled the beginning of a half-moon pose. Technicalities aside, I was impressed by how far Walker has come in terms of dynamic self-balancing, and while I struggled to keep up with it, I did appreciate the tai chi-like flow between poses.
Another key upgrade this time is Walker's enhanced environmental perception by way of visual servoing. In a nutshell, the robot was using visual data to track small objects and thus dynamically adjust hand movements and grip to interact properly.
During the demo, Walker showed off this particular skill by steadily pushing a cart out, picking up a basket and writing the Engadget logo with a marker. Despite my earlier torturing, Walker was still willing to pour a bottle of Coke into a glass for me (a huge upgrade from passing me a can of Coke last year), and I was impressed by how it gripped onto the glass until it was sure that I was taking it off its hand.
These new upgrades may seem like baby steps, but they're vital to enabling service robots to actually service us in our homes. Of course, Walker has yet to demonstrate more potential skills, especially on the human-interaction side as well as finer movements down to the level of digits. It's no wonder why Ubtech said we're still some way away from being able to bring a Walker home, but that could well happen in a few years. If you haven't already, it's about time you start saving up for your robot pal.