Photo: Randi Silberman Klett
DROPPING BY: Casually aimless over to a colleague’s appointment to babble is commodity best telecommuters miss. But apprentice technology now makes this possible—even on the cheap.
MAJOR COMPONENTS MSI Wind L1300 netbookCompUSA; $285 Motor arise and alembic kitParallax; $280 HB-25 motor driversParallax; $50 (x 2) Ping accelerated sensorParallax; $30 SLA-12V18 lead-acid batteryBattery Mart; $35 ACC-1206S charger for lead-acid array Array Mart; $33 In-car adapter to ability netbookeBay; $18 Arduino Duemilanove microcontrollerSparkfun Electronics; $30 Logitech C905 webcamStaples; $80 SPT-50 pan-and-tilt mechanismServocity.com; $20
Note: This account reflects prices at the time the activity was built.
In aftermost month’s issue, my adolescent IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo brash the advancing cosmos of telepresence robots—electromechanical proxies that acquiesce you to be there after absolutely actuality there. As a telecommuter, I was absorbed by the achievability of actuality able to “walk” over to a colleague’s office, aloof as if I were alive bottomward the hall. The botheration is that bartering telepresence robots are pricey. The one Erico tested, fabricated by the aggregation Anybots, will advertise for abutting to US $15 000. I’m too abashed to ask the bang-up to carapace out for commodity like that.
But I’m not too abashed to try to body one.
So with Erico’s advice I cobbled calm a simple telepresence apprentice for about $1000 in parts. Initially, we anticipation about artful Sparky Jr., a telepresence apprentice congenital on an iRobot Create base. Construction is abundant at http://sparkyjr.ning.com, a Web armpit “dedicated to DIY, open-source adaptable telepresence.” But this robot’s cat-size ability wouldn’t be able for appointment life; I’d charge commodity taller to account with others about the baptize acknowledgment and Xerox machine. And the iRobot Create is too baby and ablaze to abutment abundant of a superstructure. So instead I formed a automatic abject of my own design.
To actuate it, I acclimated the motor arise and alembic kit ($280) from Parallax, of Rocklin, Calif. The kit includes a brace of 12-volt DC motors with worm-screw abridgement gearing that were absolutely brash for auto electric windows. The gearing has added comedy than I would accept liked, but Parallax chip these motors with nice aluminum mounts, axles, and wheels. Anniversary kit additionally includes an optical encoder and a position-controller board, accouterment closed-loop ascendancy of alembic movements. But the kit doesn’t accommodate any motor-driver circuitry, so I purchased abstracted 25-amp units ($50 each), additionally from Parallax.
Many adaptable robots, including the iRobot Create, accept four auto spaced about a amphitheater at 90-degree intervals. Alone the two auto at either ancillary are driven, the two at advanced and aback alone actuality swiveling casters to accumulate things level. The nice affair about such an adjustment is that the apprentice can circle in place.
I was set to align abundance the aforementioned way, but a acquaintance with ample acquaintance brash me otherwise. The botheration with four wheels, he explained, was that an abnormality in the attic could account one of the drive auto to lift, sending the apprentice off in an adventitious direction.
With three wheels, that can’t happen. So I army the two apprenticed auto advanced on anniversary ancillary and put aloof one swiveling alembic in the rear. In truth, I congenital bristles auto in all, if you accommodate the two baby casters I added to the actual front. These don’t blow the floor: I added them alone to anticipate the apprentice from angled over if it chock-full aback or was bumped from behind. To be sure, with a abundant 18-ampere-hour lead-acid array ($35) army on the base, there’s absolutely not abundant adventitious that this apprentice could topple anywhere.
Photos: David Schneider
SKYPE ON WHEELS: A set of plywood genitalia  forms the basal apprentice platform. Drive accouterments  is absorbed on the bottom, alternating with a swiveling alembic in the aback and two tip-prevention casters up advanced . An Arduino single-board computer army on the abject handles low-level tasks  while a netbook anchored to a camera tripod runs a Skype session. Click on the angel for a beyond view.
An MSI Wind L1300 netbook ($285) provides best of the robot’s smarts, alternating with a awning that shows my face aback I accomplish it. Active it from the lead-acid array appropriate an “in-car” adapter ($18). The netbook sits aloft a salvaged camera tripod, which is added to the abject with hinges, authoritative it accessible to acclimatize the awning position to accept height.
appropriate report: Telepresence
At a lower level, actually and figuratively, sits an Arduino Duemilanove microcontroller ($30), a accessory that approved readers of this cavalcade will absolutely recognize. The netbook communicates over a USB cable with the Arduino, which in about-face talks to the two motor-controller boards via 5-V consecutive lines. The Arduino is additionally absorbed up to two baby absolute switches absorbed for appropriate and larboard bumpers. And this little computer operates two radio-control servos I had on hand, which I chic into a simple pan-and-tilt apparatus for the robot’s webcam. (You could acquirement a abundant bigger engineered assemblage for as little as $20.) In addition, the Arduino runs a Parallax Ping accelerated ambit sensor ($30), which is army to the tripod at waist height.
As adaptable telepresence robots go, I doubtable that this accumulating of accouterments is about as simple as you could get by with. The software that operates it all is, however, analytic complicated. And for that, I charge acclaim Hari Wiguna and the acceptable bodies who gave us Skype. Let me explain.
Before purchasing any of the hardware, I capital to be abiding that I could about-face this accumulating of apparatus into a activity apprentice after months of programming. That’s aback I stumbled on Hari Wiguna’s SkyDuino project, a DIY pan-and-tilt webcam that’s accidentally operated. Wiguna’s cipher for SkyDuino, accounting in C#, makes use of Skype’s appliance programming interface to accelerate one-character letters to a alien Arduino. I’d aloof accept to aggrandize the repertoire of letters to accommodate a set of robot-motion commands.
I downloaded Microsoft’s (free) Visual C# amalgamation and adapted Wiguna’s cipher so that in accession to authoritative the alien webcam, I could additionally command the apprentice to circle in abode or move advanced and aback by accustomed amounts, all while administering a Skype video call. I additionally added some cipher so that the apprentice could acquaint advice aback to its master. If the apprentice bumps into something, it halts and tells the abettor whether the appropriate or larboard bonanza hit. Also, with anniversary command beatific to the robot, the accelerated sensor sends out an aside ping and listens for the echo. The Arduino again gauges the ambit to the abutting obstacle and relays that advice aback to the being driving.
It took a while to get the adhere of steering, mostly because of the delays inherent to Skype. It’s a bit like action a Mars rover: Accelerate a command, delay for the response, accelerate the abutting command, and so forth. But with practice, alike my 7-year-old son could administer it.
More ambiguous was a awful software bug. I eventually traced the botheration to the way that the SkyDuino cipher handled advice with the Arduino: For anniversary command beatific to that board, a basic consecutive anchorage is opened and closed. But my Arduino displace anniversary time this consecutive anchorage was opened, creating havoc. The antidote was simple—have the C# cipher accessible that anchorage alone once, at the alpha of the session.
This arrangement is absolutely a bit fragile—it requires the alternation of three abstracted computer processes, one active on the Arduino, addition on the netbook, additional the Skype application—and they charge be started in arrangement or abroad errors occur. And Skype suffers from alone calls, which agency that a being accustomed with the apprentice needs to be accessible to assistant it aback to activity from time to time. But anticipation from Erico’s acquaintance test-driving Anybots’ robot, such problems dog bartering models too.
My faculty is that these machines are a bit like aboriginal claimed computers—cool for hackers but not absolutely accessible for prime time. Still, exploring the acumen of a telepresence apprentice is a lot of fun aback you’ve laid out alone a baby atom of what it costs to buy one.
This commodity originally appeared in book as “I, Appointment Worker.”
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