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Watch a Real Robotic Arm Controlled with Virtual Reality

Silicon Valley design team made the virtual reality-compatible robot arm with 3D printing technology.

by Leif Johnson
Aug 29 2016, 9:00am

Reality proper rarely comes into play in most of the best uses of virtual technology we've seen; for the most part it's been about slapping on the headsets, putting the controllers in hand, and blocking out the real world. But the team at Silicon Valley's 219 Design want to change that. With the help of 3D printing and open-source electronics hardware, they've made a robot arm they can control through an app using the HTC Vive virtual reality headset.

The robotic arm doesn't mimic the movements of the user's arms. Instead, based on footage in a video they released (below), controlling it appears more like shaking hands with it in virtual reality. With the Vive's controllers, users grab the robot's end effector through virtual reality as though it were a handle and maneuver it as they wish. In the real world, the robotic arm mimics the exact same motions.

It can also apparently pick things up, judging by a set of pincers on the arms that users can open and close on command. Unfortunately, the video never shows it in action.

"The VR app can also be used to teach the robot a desired behavior," on of the team members says in the video. "To do this, all the user has to do is click the record button, grab the robot arm end effector in virtual reality, and drag it in their desired motion trajectory. This motion path can then be played back at any time by pressing the play button. In this way, the user can intuitively teach the robot arm a desired behavior without any advanced programming knowledge."

That sounds impressive, and I find myself imagining astronauts controlling root arms outside the space station through similar methods with either augmented reality of virtual reality. In the video, though, the most excitement thing 219 Design's robot does is spell "Bye" as the demo rolls to a close.

"Though this project was just a proof of concept, we are excited to see the potential uses of this technology," the 219 Design team member said. "Our hope is that this inspires other engineers into developing systems that integrate the intuitiveness of virtual reality with the precision and power of robotics."

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