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Robot Skeleton Army….for real

If I mention Craig Ferguson, everybody knows who I am talking about, right?  He’s the hilarious host of the Late Late Show on CBS that airs from 12:30 – 1:30 am each night.  He’s a wonderful comedian, actor, writer, and musician with an irreverent wit that is one part Scot (single malt) and one part American.

OK, so one of Craig’s running gags is an obsession with robots and skeletons.  In fact, he calls his Twitter followers his “Robot Skeleton Army”.  Craig is also a huge fan of the show Mythbusters, and he convinced their resident mechanical genius, Grant Imahara, to design and build a Robot Skeleton sidekick for his talk show.  You can see some videos of the robot on YouTube, here.

“But Mike, what does this have to do with technology?” you ask.  That’s a good question, and one I am about to answer.  So just hold on a minute, ok?  Sheesh.

The point is, Craig’s Robot Skeleton (named Geoff Petersen) is pretty lame.  Now the Mythbusters are totally cool, in a nerdy sort of way, and Grant Imahara is a practical genius, but you have to admit that Geoff is just not really what you would expect for a real robot skeleton sort of guy, even as shtick for a late night talk show comedian.

Enter Dennis Hong and his RoMeLa group at Virginia Tech.  Dennis and a team of undergrad ME students have designed and built a real walking robot that makes Geoff look like a Neanderthal by comparison, robotically speaking.  The robot’s name is CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence).

OK, so Dennis and the ME nerds are not really good at coming up with names for their gadgets (anything with “-a-tron” at the end would have been good…), but this is just so cool you can forgive them.  Watch this movie of CHARLI walking and you’ll see what I mean.

And that’s not all.  Browse around on the RoMeLa site and you’ll see a load of mechanical, robotic creepy crawlies that will set your nerd nerves all a tingle.  How cool would it be to work in Dennis’ lab?

So, Craig, anytime you want to trade that pile of lame scrap, Geoff Petersen, in for a real robot skeleton, just give Dennis Hong a call.  He can fix you up with any sort of robotic sidekick you want.

CHARLI Walking

CHARLI walking in the RoMeLa labs


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High Tech for kids! (and the rest of us)

What sort of toys did you play with as a child?

I didn’t have video games – instead I had sports, like baseball, and…um…well, I guess baseball was the only organized sport I played.  But there were lots of kids in the neighborhood, and everybody had large back yards, so we played football, shot hoops on the neighbor’s driveway, rode our bicycles, and just generally had a lot of low-tech fun.

My now-grown son was heavily into video games that involved killing all sorts of bad guys with incredibly cool weaponry ranging from daggers to lasers to magic spells.  One day I was rummaging around through some old stuff, looking for of all things, my college diploma (I was trying to remind myself what subject my actual degree was in), and I found some of his old kindergarten papers.  Incredibly, on one paper where he was asked to list his favorite toy, he wrote “blocks”.

Ah, yes, toys that require imagination.  Down deep inside, we always go back to those.

Well, so did Kelly Harrigan, a 4th year industrial design student at Virginia Tech.  For a class assignment to “develop a creative product capable of commercialization“, she came up with a toy concept that is sure to fascinate children of any age.  It’s a set of dumbell-shaped pieces that have embedded magnets.  Here is a photo, stolen, er, I mean borrowed, from Kelly’s site.  Thanks Kelly.

How cool is that?  Magnets!  Kids love magnets, probably because they don’t understand the invisible forces they exert on each other.  In this case, the magnets are covered by wooden shapes that lend themselves to arrangement in all sorts of temporary shapes.  Check out Kelly’s Coroflot profile to see more, and learn about Kelly.  Also check out this story that was released when Kelly’s design was awarded a design patent.  Nice resume builder there, eh?

But most cool of all is that Kelly’s Ferra toy design won first place in a contest sponsored by Naef, the Swiss toymaker.  Their toys are really interesting, and Ferra looks like it would fit perfectly in their catalog.

What is the best thing about this high-tech, low-tech toy?  Well, for me, it’s that my video game master son can’t beat me at this game.

Ok, he is a graphic designer and artist, so probably he can beat me at this also.  But when most of my faculties have escaped me (possibly as soon as next month), I’ll still be able to have fun with something that has a law of nature built into it.

Oh, my degree was in Physics, as it turns out.  Who woulda thunk it?

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University research is a bargain for tech companies

Executive summary:  It’s a steal.  For you, I mean.

Many companies will crinkle up their noses, frown and then throw up on your shoes if you suggest they should work with a university research team to achieve their technology goals.  And, in many cases, your shoes would deserve to be soiled in this manner.  After all, there is a reason that good research faculty are teaching college classes instead of heading up research labs for private companies.  The academic life has its own pace, which is nowhere near fast enough for the typical technology based business.  I have personally managed a number of university collaborations over the years, and I have management-inflicted scars on my back to prove it.  But even though the interface to a university research team is difficult to control and synchronization of goals with business timelines is almost impossible, I still believe that university research is the best bargain your business will ever see, outside of bureaucratically distributed stimulus funds.

First, consider how much larger is the skill set of a well-endowed university research laboratory.  Generally there is a mix of seasoned senior research-managers and younger faculty, which really brings some R&D power to the problem.  In addition you get grad students feverishly working to earn their degrees, as well as apprentice post-docs trying to beef up their resumes using your project.

Most importantly, the cost of the research is a real bargain.  Not only do you get the benefit of years, sometimes decades of well-equipped labs, some containing one-of-a-kind tools developed specifically to study problems in your field, but you only have to pay a fraction of the actual cost of the work.

Think about it.  In a public university, the state budget underwrites a huge part of the research, not only by providing facilities, but by subsidizing the salaries of the folks working for you.

Let’s look at the Virginia budget (relevant tables for education spending are here).  The University of Virginia and its Medical School, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech together account for about $4 Billion of the State budget.  So, for example, if Virginia Tech, with about 1500 faculty, gets about $950M from the state, that equates to about $680k for each faculty member.  Of course, not all of that money goes directly to research faculty, but still, because the state underwrites the university operation to this degree, outside sponsors get a huge bargain compared to what it would have cost them to accomplish the same research results internally.

Even so, the perceived “relaxed pace” with which university research occurs is often at odds with product windows of opportunity in the commercial world.  Yes, that’s true, and it’s not going to change.  But it shouldn’t.  Businesses should view university based research as a long term strategy for obtaining leading edge technology for next generation products, not quick fixes for the failures of an internal R&D effort.  And while there are slackers within a university just like any other organization, the unbounded freedom to explore science and technology within the university environment can unleash extreme creativity, often leading to game-changing, transformational technology for the market.

One criticism often leveled at university technology transfer efforts is that the school “wants to own all the intellectual property developed with the sponsor’s money”.  Well, that’s sort of true, but there are some reasons.  Generally, the university requires faculty to assign all their rights as inventors to the school for management.  In exchange, the tech transfer office (TTO) returns a significant fraction of any license revenues back to the inventors.  So they could, for example, reap huge royalty payments from a pharmaceutical company for a drug they helped develop without having to work in a startup company.  The TTO protects and markets the inventions for the state and the inventor.  In the case of company sponsored research, the sponsor generally gets some sort of credit in the way of paid up options to negotiate exclusive license agreements, and possibly very favorable terms, in exchange for their portion of the funding.

It’s important for the company to understand that no matter how much funding they put into the project, the taxpayers of the state have also put in a significant amount, and expect a fair return.

But it’s still a bargain.  Partnering with a university results in the development of leading edge research at a fraction of the actual cost to the company.  Often, for the company, it can be the difference between being a market leader or an also-ran.

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Welcome to the HokieTech blog, where you will find information about new technologies, many of which originate in the laboratories of Virginia Tech, one of the premier research and engineering universities in the US, and the world.  This blog is maintained by Michael Miller, Senior Licensing Manager at Virginia Tech intellectual properties (VTIP).  VTIP is a non-profit corporation that manages intellectual properties and  technology transfer.

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