Mar 7
Pepper the robot


Robots and drones were in abundance at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year with plenty of tech to be enjoyed as attendance figures reached record levels. With around 108,000 individual attendees and more than 2,300 companies exhibiting according to GSMA, it can without doubt hold its position as “the world’s premier mobile ecosystem event” as described by GSMA CEO John Hoffman.

Besides new smart phones with longer lasting batteries, faster charging and waterproof cases, the hype still continues around 5G and the ever expanding Internet of Things. Robots and virtual reality (VR) systems seemed to be everywhere – Is it just me or are robots already starting to take over the world?

A robot drummer (or at least a pair of remotely controlled mechanical arms) kept us entertained by frantically beating out a rhythm at Korea Telecom’s stand, while other robots were on the loose around the show. On the Oberthur booth, SoftBank Robotics with partner Hoomano were demonstrating their social robot called Pepper, which has the ability to read emotions by analysing facial expressions and voice tones.

Pepper engaged in delightful conversation telling me about Hoomano’s interactive intelligence products while the humanoid’s minder Xavier Basset, Founder and CEO of Hoomano explained some of the applications the robot could be used for. Since Pepper grabs attention so easily the robot would make an ideal sales assistant in a busy phone store or shopping mall by engaging with customers and helping them make buying decisions.

Then I met Riley, apparently the world’s smartest home companion (or so I am told by his creators at Varram). Riley is a Wi-Fi controlled robotic camera which moves around on caterpillar tracks and can be used to take photos of you, your dog or anything else around the home. The images can be viewed and stored on your phone and the robot is self-righting if it falls over and finds its way back to its re-charging point when the batteries get low. Its uses can extend to video surveillance and home security. The robot can be controlled from a smart phone and by adding control applications the robot could be automated in the future, using video image recognition perhaps.

Drones, drones and more drones

Drones were even more evident this year than last with a whole Drone Zone section dedicated to them. No doubt drones have come on a long way in the last few years with some amazing pieces of kit on show.

Ooredoo drone

Search and rescue drone

While mini drones were battling it out for world supremacy controlled from smart phones I took a look at some of the larger professional drones costing in excess of €10,000. These guys can be used for rescue services, tower inspection, video surveillance, films and TV production. I was surprised just how large these pieces of kit can be, some measuring well over a metre across and able to fly for up to 90 minutes.

These drones can be used to mount full sized HD digital cameras with telephoto lenses and can provide very stable platforms for jitter free images. They have built-in range finders for accurately measuring short distances and can automatically avoid obstacles as they survey telecoms towers and masts at close range. Optical sensors and radar can be used for making physical measurements of tower dimensions to check for mechanical defects and structural distortion.

Virtual worlds just a step away

For the first time I tried a couple of VR systems, out of sheer curiosity. The first one by HTC Vive was a demo of a VR headset linked to two positional sensors mounted on the walls of the demo booth and used to accurately track your head movements and position relative to the room. Two hand controllers allowed me to interact with the game where I could shoot ‘aliens’ which were attacking me.

Even turning my head rapidly I could still see all around and remained well and truly in the virtual space without any discernible delay. A smart phone version was also available which provided a cheaper alternative to the VR headset where a phone could be slotted into a hand held controller to do much the same thing but the effect was not as dramatic as full 3D. Not sure about safety issues though if you tried to use the VR system on your own in a room full of furniture!

STC's roaming camera 'bot'

Remote VR camera ‘bot’ on the STC booth

On the Saudi Telecom (STC) booth I experienced a great example of combined virtual reality with robotics. A roving ‘bot’ with a video camera cluster in its head provided full, real-time 360 degree vision (including views of the ceiling above it) and was wirelessly connected to a VR headset so that the wearer could experience an all-round view as seen by the robot. A slightly surreal but very effective experience, especially when seeing yourself from the robot’s point of view! Uses could include remote inspection in hazardous environments like nuclear power stations.

All-in-all it was a very enjoyable couple of days – I wonder what new and exciting things we might expect to see at next year’s MWC event?

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