Ten years down the line, when we all own robots, we will need a place to download all the best apps—you know, the ones that let your robot tell bedtime stories, find your favorite beer, help your elderly parents, or terrorize your neighbors. That future is on its way. The Robots App Store exists (I took a trip to its headquarters this week), as do apps that make robots tell stories and scout out beer.
The app store, which is open only to developers until it’s rolled out to the public sometime in the next few weeks, is pretty straightforward: it’s filled with over 200 apps that can run on over 55 different robots, including the Roomba-like iRobot, Pleo (a $469 robot that resembles a dinosaur), Lego NXT, PR2, and Aibo.
Robots App Store founder and robotics researcher Elad Inbar, adviser Matt Monday (he worked on Apple’s app store for three years) and a cadre of data testers try out every app to make sure it works and that it isn’t dangerous (meaning it won’t program a robot to slice off your hand or break your dishes) before putting it in the store. The apps come in all sorts of programming languages—every robot has its own—as well as universal ones like ROS. The number of languages may eventually pare down, much like the large number of platforms in the mobile industry has largely been reduced to just iOS and Android.
The apps found in the store—many of which will sell for approximately $10 a pop—are varied, to say the least. There’s an app for the Lego NXT that essentially turns the bot into a mini Segway. There’s one that allows the iRobot to select what the programmer believes is the best beer—Guinness—from a selection placed in front of it. One app teaches the Pleo (above) to search through a maze to find "food." Another teaches the Nao bot how to grasp a broom and sweep. Yet another app programs the Nao to help its owner pick up a table, with Nao grasping one end and the human holding onto the other.
The possibilities are nearly endless, with a few exceptions. "There probably won’t be any assassin apps," jokes Monday.
Here’s what’s not in the app store now, but might be in the future: apps to assist the elderly and chronically ill. Inbar cites the KSERA project, which aims to use the Nao to help people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) as an example of the kind of thing we might see down the line. KSERA aims to use Nao’s sensors to detect when patients have a dangerous cough, and then use its Wi-Fi capabilities to call a doctor. The robot can follow patients from room to room, acting as a virtual caregiver.
The Robot App Store’s apps may not become hugely popular in the near future—many robots, like the $16,000 Nao (not yet released to the public), have too high a price point for anyone who isn’t a total bot geek. But others, like the Lego NXT, can be had for under $500.
Over the coming years, prices will come down as more robots come to market (4.6 million entertainment bots will be released in the next three years, according to the International Federation of Robotics). And after spending some time with a Nao bot while it told me stories from the Star Wars universe and watched in awe as a ball dangled in front of its head, I’m confident that most people will welcome these robot overlords with open arms.