A bunch of Karotz

According to a thread on a French forum, Aldebaran-Robotics seems to be taking over Mindscape, the current owner of Karotz/Nabaztag.

In case you did not know, Karotz is a rabbit connected to the Internet. Sitting on your desk or on your living room table, it can notify you when you receive mails, when a feed is updated, or broadcast you a radio, the weather forecast, the stock market, etc.

Far away from the usual vision of a robot (it can move its ears, wohou!) this fellow still play big in the field of living objects bringing you interaction between your real life and your cyber life.

So-called an “ambient electronic devise” it embeds a small computer (ARM9) with Linux, Wi-Fi, RFID, a webcam, a speaker and a big LED.

However, through its life Karotz and its predecessor Nabaztag had a hard time. Launched in 2005 the Nabaztag had been slowly progressing on the market. In 2009 the original company, Violet, had to be bought by Mindscape for 350 000 €. Otherwise it would have sank.

Mindscape discontinued the Nabaztag to launch a new version, the Karotz. The service had been a little better and the servers behind the rabbit a bit faster. They also open-sourced some part of the Nabaztag. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Two months ago Mindscape was also near the cliff, entering the liquidation process.

Yesterday was the deadline for the potential buyers. And it turns out Aldebaran won! It is a big surprise. We do not have many more info than the outcome of this decision for the moment. No official announcement yet.
EDIT: confirmed by internal sources.

This comes as a big surprise. I have seen these rabbits sitting on the desk of some of Aldebaran employees and even on the desk of the CEO, Bruno Maisonnier. And I knew for a long time the applications and usages of the rabbits could perfectly fit for NAO as well. Turn the little humanoid into a living and interactive notification agent walking around your house!

But I always considered this move to be unlikely considering the current state of the company. That is, no public product released yet, and no benefit as well. Well, maybe it shows how much this is a key move! Some scenarios are imaginable. Here is what I can think about it, with no exclusion between them.

Aldebaran could use Karotz as a first publicly released product. That would bring them some real fire experience before releasing NAO for good. But it will also mean lots of overhead for them. With possibly no cash flow back, as it seems the economic models Violet and Mindscape were using is not efficient for this product.

Aldebaran could use the current applications, usages, technology of Karotz for NAO. We know the eco-system of NAO will be a definitive factor of its success. And notification and broadcasting stuff will be a big part of it. So better bring the capital and pluses of the rabbit to the success of NAO. But technically merging the two worlds could be a bit daunting. And for the community around the rabbit, it will be hard to convince them to buy a NAO. Just not the same price…

Mindscape did not only have Karotz. They also had Adi and Adibou, the educative software by which they lived for so long (more than a decade!). I remember I have been using Adi in my youth. Maybe one of the first really interactive and interesting soft I used on a computer. I learned many things with it. I had fun doing the virtual science experiments and learn lots of culture points. And we know that NAO could have an important role to play in the field of child teaching. So why not trying to use the educative forces in Mindscape for the sake of NAO?

I will surely follow what’s going on with this move.

Category: Insight, NAO | Comments
November 30, 2010

By Axel Voitier

Close up on a Nao robot

Last week-end Aldebaran organised a summit in Paris with ~15 of the beta-testers of Nao. It is the third time since the beta-test started about 1 year and a half ago. And during this event we talked a lot about the new shiny developer program, of course.

But the day before some of us were able to make it to a small dinner that we organised. People from Aldebaran happily joined as well. Discussions were already getting a lot around what is going to happen with the developer program. I will tell you all the subjects we get onto during this week-end ;-).

What is happening on the developer program website

BiLocK exposed all the functionalities of the developer program websites for those who did not dared exploring it yet. Project management, wikis, bug trackers, FTP to release files, Git repositories, “channels” of behavior (I will come back to that), the NaoStore, and many other things to stay in touch with all the other developers and Aldebaran’s guys.

He presented us the synchronisation mechanism between the robot and the website. The point is that we will soon be able to subscribe our robot the behavior channels we want. These channels can be seen in two ways. It is like a source of new behaviour that can automatically get pushed on your robot. So, your robot will surprise you with new stuffs! Like a content feed.
Or you can also see it as a distribution of behavior, like we have Linux distributions. That is a set of program and capabilities your robot will have.

The developers will be able to create their channels, of course. And populate them with their own behaviors or with programs from other people. It should also be possible to sell subscriptions to channels on the NaoStore (to your fellow developers for the moment).
One restriction not clearly defined yet: you will have to keep your channel updated. Old behaviors should vanish after a while.

About the NaoStore, channels are not the only things you could put there. You could also sell or give for free behaviors (not in the form of channel), or any other developments you could make with Nao, even “hardware” (like specific accessories, objects made for Nao’s hand, etc.). Aldebaran will also sell things there.

Note that it is not yet defined how much share Aldebaran will get on things you sell. Actually, for the moment (ie. for the developer program) it seems more like they do not want to take any. They will consult us later to have our opinion about that. Yes, their point is not to make (small) money on our back already!

The first channel

Aldebaran is participating in our projects

It is a clear message they want to send. Aldebaran want to participate in our projects, especially when they are open-source!

To start, they picked up two projects (which happened to be some of mine :-]). At the beginning I made a project to propose a way to embed custom C++ modules into Choregraphe projects. So the end user does not need to install anything except your behavior itself.

But I ended up finding out it was already possible with one of the SDK module… Its documentation was not really clear.
Nevertheless, as Aldebaran thought this module (ALLauncher) needed a rewriting (it is not really flexible actually), they should verse the current code of it into my original (and now useless) project, and so release some of their codes into open-source!

Nothing big here for the moment. It is just one module ;-). But that is already a good step towards open-source. And Aldebaran is showing they like this! Some of Aldebaran’s developers are quite excited they can at last make some stuff in open-source.
And they would also integrate the work back into their official releases if they feel we produced something that worth it.

Another proof of the will of Aldebaran to really cooperate with us is around a second project I already told you about. I made a project for documentation and tutorials written by the developers in complement of the official documentation. Because I really think this is the way we will “educate” about Nao the new comers. And help them getting quickly on tracks to develop behaviors.

So, Aldebaran is going to participate in this project by writing some new tutorials and other docs. Why don’t they just put them directly into the official release? Because these releases follow a more industrial process of product management. By participating to one of the developer program project it is more flexible to publish stuffs quickly and reviewed by the community.

They already wrote tutorials about ALMemoryFastAccess, advanced usage of CMake to cross-compile libraries, doing Python inside Choregraphe, and other programming things.

So here again, I think they are showing they (as a company) can adopt the way modern high-tech online projects work by using the cooperation and communication tools usual to these kind of collaboration. And we love it!
In the spirit of Generation-G I would say. GENERATION G is about being a bit kinder, a bit more caring towards your customers.”

Other things

I do not want to be too long here. So I will quickly review the other things we saw on Saturday.

They presented us a prototype of the charging station of Nao. Until now, the robot use a simple charger that you connect to the back of Nao when its battery need a boost. But this long awaited “Nao Energy Station” as it is called for the moment will allow the robot to connect itself to the source of energy.
It is one important key to access the fully autonomous grade for a robot ;). Work In Progress. Some developers could be selected to participate in its development later on.

They shown us a feature we will soon have: the Resource Manager. Basically, it is a way to handle access to resources of Nao (an arm, a leg, the whole body, the speakers, etc.) when they are concurrently shared by different behaviors running on the robot at the same time. More details to come when we get it.
It does not seem like that, but it is a very important improvement for Nao.

Some of the beta-tester recently got a Kinect. They tried more or less to interface it with Nao. The usage of Kinect with Nao is not so obvious and straightforward though.

Some long discussions across the day were focusing on Aldebaran certification of programs (might be needed to propose stuff on the NaoStore, but still let the possibility for not certified behavior to be used outside of it ;-)), ethics about how the developers and Aldebaran should behave between each others, purpose of the channels and the NaoStore, etc.

We also have seen the new version of Nao, V3.3, that the new comers will receive. It has longer arms and a new hardware organisation in the head.
And they also shown us some prototyped pieces of Romeo, the future of Nao ;-). One word: huge :-D.

Category: Insight, NAO | Comments
November 22, 2010

By Axel Voitier

Nao robots waiting for an upgrade

Last year I had the chance to enter into the Nao adventure. I was then selected as a “beta-tester” for this little fellow! We have been through quite some moments with the guys of Aldebaran. We started in the hands of the marketing. But for most of my 30 beta-tester camarades Nao was not ready enough to dub this program as “beta”. We indeed called it sometimes, ironically, an alpha-test :-).

The hardware was here, and it was really good, except a few details. But on overall, I have no complain to give for the hardware of this robot (ok, I would not mind a faster CPU sometimes :-)). The problem was the total lack of applications. And at a greater level, the lack of autonomous life. We had nothing to test apart the hardware and the middleware (SDK) of the robot.

Some of us were willing to put their hands in the code. But not everybody was ready to do so. And I regret that for certain people Nao just stayed in its box all the time. At least it was protected from the dust!
The team of Aldebaran was trying to help us as they could. But the non-programmers were only asking for “new programs” (that is not an easy thing, I tell you ;-)). And those with a bit of will to explore Nao’s guts only had technical inquiries for our marketing contacts… That did not go very far unfortunately.

Then, Aldebaran reacted after a while. Another team took the steering wheel of the beta-test program. “AppU”, the application and usage team. Led by BiLocK, they are in charge of finding THE applicationS of Nao (as well as lowering the candy stocks of the shops nearby Aldebaran HQ in Paris ;-D).
As an example of “who they are” I can tell you they made the demonstration programs for the Shanghai World’s Fair. Especially this dance that you should know, really:

But the AppU team is not only doing dance-floor that worth ~240 000 € (20 robots x 12 000 €, the price of an academic version of Nao). After their stress for Shanghai lowered, they were much more here for us. We received some applications to test, of course (and at least!). We also had a very fruitful meeting with them in Paris last July.

But now it is time for a change. A major milestone for Nao. And a very needed turn over for Nao’s community in my opinion. Aldebaran is opening the Developer Program. In order to have Nao ready for its long awaited public release (next year… maybe ;-)), talented developers will be invited by the current community to create the first sparks of life in our beloved chap.

In short, this program will be:

  • The occasion to get a hand on Nao and let your creativity speak out.
  • A place to meet people, exchange with them. Share your code, your experience and your tricks with the other developers. Open-source very friendly!
  • A chance to be among the first ones to sell your stuffs in the future store of Nao.
  • Limited! Not everybody can make it in!
  • Only for individuals. No company, no university, no school. These guys have other ways to be part of the adventure. (For associations it could be possible though)
  • For very good developers.
  • For very motivated people.
  • Open to the world: everybody, every culture is very welcome. But in English only! (Even though this robot has strong roots in France, it is certainly not going to be a baguette!)
  • On invitation only. And it is the community that is going to select you at first. Once inside you will also have some invitations to distribute so you can get your own pals in. Aldebaran will issue very few invitations themselves. “Network! Network! Network!”

You will receive a full robot. There is of course a price tag. But it will have nothing to do with the price of an academic version. As this program is meant to push Nao in its future first steps in the wild life, Aldebaran will make a BIG offer. Plan on a few thousands euro still. Edit: the price has been made public: 3600 € (tax included).

Developer Program website

The beta-testers are testing for you the new website of the Developer Program for few weeks now. Aldebaran made the choice of making their own tools to support this community of developers. So, it is adapted for our activities. You will have all the facilities to host and manage projects, share code, discuss with other people and release stuffs. Plus I will be putting a bit of myself to maintain a “tutorial project” to help you out of the documentation (and maybe some podcasts?). Of course, once you will rock the SDK, you could still make some tutorials yourself ;-).

I will be posting on this weblog some sneak peek of the program for those who stay around. Otherwise, if you are very interested to get in the program, you will have to get in touch with the community. Join Aldebaran’s forum. Announce you in the comments of BiLocK’s blog, on the NaoDevBlog of Naoforge. And, of course, here. Interact with us by mail or on twitter:

The point is to get to know each other so we can decide if we give you an invitation or not ;-). We will discuss your technical abilities, your motivations, your interest in robotics (even if you never did anything with robot before!), etc.

Check out more official info in this latest message from the leader of the program: Nao developer Program opening today.

Here is a message from Zirup, my robot :-].

Category: Insight, NAO | Comments