The Light Side: 'It's the Hotel, Our Robot Has Arrived with Your Towels'

August 29, 2014

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In the near future, when you're in a hotel room, a three-foot-tall robot could be delivering the towels you just requested.

Robotic bellhops could be a sign of things to come for the hotel industry, and the future is starting with Starwood Hotels' trial of the SaviOne at its Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif., which is incidentally across the campus of Apple. Starwood's Aloft brand and that particular property are known for trying new tech to improve the hotel guest experience, and the location has begun pilot-testing robotic room delivery service with the sentient machine created by Silicon Valley startup Savioke.

Looking like a cross between a copier and EVE from the Disney-Pixar movie WALL-E, the SaviOne has been given a pet name and decorated with butler's collar graphics and striping in Aloft-brand colors. Now known as "A.L.O. The Botlr" around the hotel, it glides (on almost fully-hidden wheels) at a brisk 4 miles per hour -- the pace of a fast-walking human -- delivering whatever its 2-cubic-foot payload capacity can hold within several minutes after a request. So far, that has been items that guests typically need or forgot to pack, such as razors, toothpaste or toothbrushes, snacks, and towels.

The Botlr, of course, is autonomous, so it knows where to go once a hotel staffer enters a destination room number. Before it started work at the hotel, the robot, which weighs about 100 pounds, did a walk-through and mapped out the whole place. It uses onboard cameras and sensors to move about and get out of people's way should the hotel's passageways get busy. It uses wireless signals to communicate with elevators, opening and closing doors and getting to the right floor.

When Botlr arrives in front of a guest's room, it calls the room to alert the guest of a delivery. Its sensors detect when the door opens, and Botlr automatically raises its storage-bin lid and completes the delivery. When it's not making deliveries, it patiently waits for the next call while plugged into its recharging station at the front desk. Its trips and interactions with humans, consisting of R2D2-like sounds, are much less ambitious than, say, those of Hitchbot, but Botlr is bound to get just as many bedazzled reactions.

Savioke is a service robot maker interested in producing robots for places such as hotels, assisted-living facilities, and hospitals. The company reportedly received development help from Google Ventures and cold-called Starwood to see if it was interested in the droid. Savioke says the SaviOne was developed specifically for the hotel industry and took about seven months to deliver.

The best part about SaviOne/Botlr is that you don't have to tip it for good service, so you'll be spared the evil eye of a rejected bellhop. But it will prompt you for a favorable review on its touch-screen interface -- or a nice tweet or selfie to #meetbotlr. Its hope is that with enough positive feedback, Starwood will add its brethren to all 100-plus Aloft locations.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIpZ8SRK1xo[/youtube]

College Grad's Infatuation with Hockey Big Data

There's a future in statistics for 23-year-old Corey Sznajder.

The young man is currently on a data project/mission: to watch every single game of the 2013-2014 National Hockey League regular season. And he's watching all 1,230 recorded games to note down very specific plays: zone entries. Sznajder is very particular, in addition to being very dedicated.

For those who don't follow hockey, a zone entry, as the phrase infers, occurs when a player who has the puck attempts to gain the opposing team's defensive zone by either stickhandling -- also known as carrying the puck -- or whipping the puck past the defense and then attempting to retrieve it deep inside the opponent's territory -- a play known as the dump-in.

Sports analytics is big business, no matter what the sport is, providing teams competitive intelligence that could affect their player-selection decisions, strategies, and styles of play; football teams, after all, are often described as "running" or "passing" teams. Sznajder's unconventional project of cataloging previously unthought-of information fits right into the emerging era of Big Data and can give newfound insights into NHL teams' strategies on zone entries and particular players' effectiveness on those plays (both on offense and defense).

Hockey analytics have already determined that a controlled zone entry (carrying the puck) is twice as valuable as a dump-in. Putting actual metrics to what is already known -- that, in this case, dumping the puck into the zone means a lower chance of regaining possession and making an offensive play -- is what drives sports analytics, which make up a major component of team scouting reports, and it's as competitive as the on-ice or on-field action. It is no coincidence that the Los Angeles Kings, the Stanley Cup champs, were statistically the NHL's best puck possession team, according to Sznajder. He told Canadian sports site TSN, "The Kings make it nearly impossible (for the opposition) to enter the zone under control."

Sznajder, an American who lives in Annapolis, Md., envisioned his project as a six-month endeavor. He reportedly has watched over 800 games, making him around two-thirds of the way through, and each game has around 150 zone entries. You can do the math, but that's a lot of spreadsheet action. He completes six games a day, but he loves big projects, as quoted by TSN, and, obviously, he loves watching hockey -- probably more than anyone else at this rate.

His project has since become a crowdfunded one, once word spread across the hockey ether. Donors will receive the complete set of data, either as an e-book or via access to an online database being kept by Sznajder. In addition to getting to see the metrics, presumably so they can use them in support of player arguments, er, debates in online hockey forums, hockey fans are ponying up money probably because they also feel a bit of empathy for Sznajder's plight.

There's no word on whether NHL teams have made donations to Sznajder to gain data access, but he said some teams have already contacted him to find out more about his work. We suppose those teams have also made Sznajer job offers, so he can help them gain an edge on other teams with more clever ways of analyzing the game of hockey.

Japanese Come Up with World's Fastest Camera

A new camera, developed by researchers in Japan, has set a world record for the number of frames that can be captured in a second. Shooting approximately 4.4 trillion frames per second (fps), the new device is fast enough to image chemical reactions as they occur, bringing to life what was once impossible to see.

Developed by engineers and scientists at the University of Tokyo and Keio University, the new camera will take images with a 450 by 450 pixel resolution using repeated pulses of laser light that illuminate a target object.

Called femto-photography, the imaging technique shoots a femto-second period laser (10 to the 15th power of a second) toward a series of mirrors that focus the laser’s light onto a specific area of a target object. As the laser pulses, the beams disperse into their separate spectral wavelengths across an object and the entire target is resolved, creating an image that freezes time in an unprecedented way.

To demonstrate their achievement, researchers claim to have captured stills of lattice vibrational waves and plasma dynamics, two phenomena that had not been observed previously.

Amazingly enough, if the new camera could shoot a single second at 4.4T fps, it would stretch that instant to a scale that’s beyond comprehension. In fact, given that video runs at roughly 30 fps it would take roughly 4,650.76 years of continuous playback to view an instance that passed in a flash. To put that in context, 4,650 years ago the Egyptians were still about 100 years from the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Hammurabi wouldn’t codify laws for another eight centuries.

With the advent of this new camera, maybe it’s time to replace the old adage “a picture says a thousand words” with “a picture could last 1,000 lives.”

Regardless of how long it would take to view an entire sequence captured by the photographic marvel, the fact that it could give us deeper insight into chemical reactions could put this device on par with Hooke’s microscope and Daguerre’s first camera.

Researchers expect a lab-ready version of their camera to be available sometime during 2016, while current efforts seek to miniaturize the 3-meter-long camera and perfect its performance.

'MOVE': DIY Motion-Activated Running Lights

Todd Medema and Scott Martin at Fabricate.IO want to solve the problem of late-night illumination. On late-night trips across the house or while entering a dark house, shelves were sometimes knocked over, toes were stubbed, and roommates were roused from their sleep by the lights being flipped on.

Their solution is MOVE Lighting -- hallway runner lights that consist mainly of LED lighting strips, motion sensors, and standard electrical connections. The lights are expected to run as part of a Kickstarter campaign in the next month, and as of this writing, over 93,000 users have downloaded the instructions to build their own lights through the Instructables website.

An off-the-shelf Jameco photocell is the sensor that the team has specified for the lighting system, and a standard LED strip and power supply are recommended. Medema suggested that an enterprising engineer/hacker could easily convert the project to battery operation instead of requiring AC current.

MOVE lights are cool. They solve a problem that quite a few different teams are working on currently, with an easy, elegant solution using easy-to-find components. This isn't the only thing that Fabricate.IO has done, however. Its Instructables page is full of great ideas and projects for novice builders and experienced hackers alike.

Low-cost workbenches, gesture control devices for Python, electric bike conversion kits, and a levitating coffee table are some of the projects that are currently available on the Fabricate.IO page. I'm not brave enough to try the watermelon/shrimp pizza and my ears are 100 percent against the DIY membrane bagpipes that I'm sure the kids would love to play for hours on end.

Medema and Martin are exactly the kind of Makers we need to keep the engineering profession moving forward. They love building but also love spreading their projects and the joy of making to others. Based on the list of upcoming projects, I'm excited to see the collapsible chair that turns into wall art, and expect someday soon to write a follow-up article discussing their remote-controlled, fire-breathing duckbot.

This article and the previous article were originally published on Engineering.com and are adapted in their entirety with permission. For more stories like these, please visit Engineering.com.  
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