Cosmic Tech

German robotics team wins Avatar XPRIZE showdown

Robotic life imitated art this weekend at a telepresence contest in California, and Germany’s Team NimbRo is $5 million richer as a result. The payoff came at the end of the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, sponsored by Japan’s All Nippon Airways and organized by the XPRIZE foundation.

The contest incentivized technologies that allow operators to perform real-time robotic operations remotely — a la the fictional blue-skinned androids who are linked to humans in the “Avatar” movie series (with “Avatar: The Way of Water” premiering next month). The concept is also center stage in “The Peripheral,” a sci-fi novel by William Gibson that’s been adapted for the screen on Amazon Prime Video.

Ninety-nine teams signed up for the Avatar XPRIZE in 2018, kicking off rounds of competition that led to the Nov. 5 finals at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. The robots had to weigh less than 160 kilograms (350 pounds) and be controlled wirelessly.

This weekend, 17 finalist teams from 10 countries brought in their robotic telepresence systems to perform a series of remote tasks such as traversing an 80-foot-long obstacle course strewn with boulders, flipping switches, using a power drill to unscrew a bolt, and selecting the roughest rock in a collection based strictly by feel.

For the finals, the avatars were controlled by outside judges from a separate room, rather than by team members. Points were awarded based on how quickly and how well the tasks were performed. NimbRo’s robot did all 10 tasks in five minutes and 50 seconds.

A robot built by a French team called Pollen Robotics accomplished all the tasks in 10 minutes and 50 seconds, earning the $2 million second prize. Boston-based Team Northeastern came away with the $1 million third prize. The other $2 million of the prize purse was awarded last year to the teams advancing to the finals.


ANA Avatar XPRIZE teams go to the next level

Avatar at work
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

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How ‘avatars’ will let you travel virtually

Kevin Kajitani
Kevin Kajitani, co-director of ANA’s Avatar division, talks about virtual teleportation as a travel experience during the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

When it was time for Kevin Kajitani to put his ideas for traveling through telepresence to the test, he chose a familiar experimental subject: his son.

Kajitani — the co-director of the Avatar division at ANA Holdings, the parent company of Japan’s biggest airline — set up a mobile Beam robot at his home north of Tokyo, crept into a closet, and rolled the robot out to greet his 2-year-old son Aoi with his face looking out from the video screen.

“The first time I approached my son with the avatar, he said, ‘Papa!’ And we started playing,” Kajitani said Oct. 9 at a lunch talk sponsored by ANA at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

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ANA partners with space agency on telepresence

Avatar X roadmap
The Avatar X initiative would begin on Earth and move out to the International Space Station, other outposts, the moon and Mars. (ANA Holdings Graphic)

Telepresence robots on the moon and Mars? That’s the vision laid out for the partnership between ANA Holdings, the parent company of Japan’s All Nippon Airways, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The ANA-JAXA program, known as Avatar X, aims to establish a public-private consortium to develop new types of human-controlled robots that can collect data and perform tasks in remote locations. The concept is in line with the ANA Avatar Vision that was unveiled in March, as well as with JAXA’s new J-SPARC research and development program.

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ANA unveils ambitious vision for telepresence

Telepresence robot
Telexistence’s Telesar V robot takes its cues from a human wearing a headset and manual control apparatus. The robot is an inspiration for the ANA Avatar Vision. (University of Tokyo / Tachi Lab)

All Nippon Airways’ newly announced sponsorship of a $10 million contest for real-life avatars is just one part of a grander vision that aims to break down barriers through robotic telepresence.

“We see ourselves not as an airplane operator, but as a company that aims to bridge the gaps between the different cultures that exist in our world,” Kevin Kajitani, assistant manager for ANA’s Digital Design Lab and Innovation Research, told GeekWire today. “And that’s where we see the avatars fitting in.”

The way Kajitani and his colleagues define them, avatars are robots that are remotely controlled by humans, enabling their operators to see, hear, feel and interact freely in a remote environment in real time.

Such systems already exist — one example is Japan’s touchy-feely Telesar V robot. ANA’s vision is aimed at facilitating a quantum leap in sophistication.

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$10 million Avatar XPRIZE to boost telepresence

XPRIZE android
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to promote the development of real-life avatars. (XPRIZE Illustration)

All Nippon Airways is sponsoring a $10 million, four-year competition to spur the development of real-life avatars that could provide telepresence over a span of dozens of miles.

Registration opens today for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, with XPRIZE founder and executive chairman Peter Diamandis presiding over a high-profile kickoff at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

In a news release, Diamandis explained that our ability to experience faraway locales, or provide on-the-ground assistance where needed, is typically limited by cost and time constraints.

“The ANA Avatar XPRIZE can enable creation of an audacious alternative that could bypass these limitations, allowing us to more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time and cultures,” he said.

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