While Baxter of Rethink Robotics has been designed to work safely alongside humans in an industrial environment, the truth is that, historically, industrial robots have been separated from workers because they can be dangerous.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins are trying to bridge the distance between humans and industrial robots not in the real world, but in the virtual one. They have created a way to make these types of interactions safer through a virtual reality environment that enables humans to work closely with robots without being near them.
The Immersive Virtual Robotics Environment, or IVRE, is the work of research led by Gregory Hager at the Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Hager is director of the lab. He and doctoral student Kel Guerin developed IVRE, which is described as “a natural immersive virtual environment that enables a user to instruct, collaborate, and otherwise interact with a robotic system either in simulation or in real-time via a virtual proxy."
A video that researchers created and posted online shows how IVRE works:
By using IVRE, someone can program and physically train a robot through “grab and move” programming without having to be in physical proximity to it. The environment also brings other benefits to users, improving their situational awareness of what a robot is doing and allowing them to instruct a robot to perform tasks in a more natural way, according to researchers. Interacting with robots in the virtual world also can become more effective by allowing someone to send messages to the robot or assign tasks virtually to guide the robot as it performs its function.
The environment has two key aspects allowing a human to interact with an industrial robot -- virtual interactive objects, or actables, and virtual user interfaces, or VUIs.
Actable 3D virtual objects are user-created representations of geometry in the scene and can be manipulated by the user in a number of ways, including resizing, repositioning, or even deletion. For example, one actable might be a tool a robot could use, which can be represented in the virtual world and then transferred to the robot’s physical environment.
VUIs allow users to interact with robots on various levels in a natural way. This can include changing modes, creating or deleting resources, or changing views. The purpose of VUIs is to immerse the user as much as possible in the interface, according to researchers, which means he or she doesn’t need to use a mouse or keyboard to interact in IVRE. IVRE also gives users access to a number of tools for manipulating the robot, displaying information, and interacting with the virtual environment, on topics that include virtual robot instruction, monitoring, and user-guided perception.