Local company wins inaugural RoboBowl

Ellis Robinson Oct 17, 2011

Finalists for the RoboBowl competition gathered last Thursday at the Posner Center before a panel of judges to determine whose robot would be the winner of a $20,000 first-place prize. For someone unfamiliar with the competition, “RoboBowl” may conjure up images of robotic fighting matches a la BattleBots. Think again.

RoboBowl is a series of robotics venture competitions meant to “find and foster start-up and early-stage companies seeking to develop ‘big idea’ products and services” that meet new needs, according to a Carnegie Mellon press release — very different from BattleBots indeed. The focus of RoboBowl Pittsburgh, the first in the RoboBowl competition series, was on robots designed for health care and quality of life.

As a result of the local hosting, both Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon were well represented in the competition: Three of the five finalists were startup companies hailing from Pittsburgh, while the other two teams were from Highland Park, N.J., and Mountain View, Calif. Additionally, one of the members of RescueBotics, the Mountain View team, is a Carnegie Mellon graduate student in robotics.

The winner of the competition was Interbots, a company made up almost entirely of Carnegie Mellon graduates from the entertainment technology and human-computer interaction programs. The team’s winning design, “Popchilla,” was a toy robot designed to help children with autism.

“We hope to leverage the connection children with [autism] have with robots,” Interbots CEO Seema Patel said during her presentation at RoboBowl.

According to Patel, recent research shows that autistic children have an easier time interacting with robots than with humans. Think of Popchilla as a technologically sophisticated puppet: Parents and therapists can speak through Popchilla remotely, allowing them to interact and guide children through activities.

Autism treatment with Popchilla can evolve over time through software that allows users to update Popchilla’s expressions and character, which can also be tailored to the personality and age of the child. Interbots plans to develop robots for educational and toy applications in the future, Patel said.

The other Pittsburgh-based finalists were TactSense Technologies and Origami Robotics. TactSense is a surgical robotics company whose instruments relay tactile information to a surgeon’s hands during remote-controlled surgery. The company, a spin-off from research at the University of Pittsburgh, was the competition runner-up. Origami Robotics submitted “MeMote” for the competition, a robot designed for autism therapy like Interbots’ Popchilla.

“Therapeutic robots right now exist almost solely in academic labs,” said Aubrey Shick of Origami, who is a Carnegie Mellon alumna. These existing therapeutic robots are well out of the price range for home use. However, MeMote, priced at $200, would be affordable for many families. “[Autistic children’s] parents historically are first adopters of new technologies and therapies,” Shick said.

All teams reaching the final round received $5,000, with the winner receiving an additional $20,000. For small start-up companies, small cash prizes can be crucial for the first stages of turning grand ideas into reality.

RoboBowl is organized by the Innovation Accelerator (IA) and the Robotics Technology Consortium (RTC), two organizations attempting to promote American technological innovation. IA provides funding assistance for start-up and mid-stage technology ventures across many disciplines and applications. RTC is an industry group that advocates for robotics development for use by the Department of Defense and other government agencies.