Here are all the robots we saw at TC Sessions: Robotics

Robots are coming. Are they overlords or friendly companions designed to help us perform the mundane tasks of our respective days? Perhaps it’s both. Whatever the purpose, they’re no longer part of some vague future we can’t quite fathom. They’re here now, and we got to meet a few of them at TC Sessions: Robotics at UC Berkeley.

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert announced onstage that the company’s 66-pound SpotMini robot will be available for purchase by the normals in 2019. Yes, one day you, too, will be able to have a dog robot perform services for you at the office or home.


Mayfield Robotics

This cute little robot from Mayfield Robotics can blink, play music, turn its head and recharge itself. It can also just stay put to take pictures of you and live-stream your daily life. Yep. It watches you. Its name is Kuri and it can be your little buddy to always remind you that you never have to be alone.

Agility Robotics

Agility Robotics’ bipedal humanoid robot was designed with bird legs in mind. But it wasn’t yet designed with arms. The company’s CTO Jonathan Hurst says those are to come. It’ll cost you $35,000 when it’s in full production mode. Custom deliveries started in August 2017 to a select few universities — University of Michigan, Harvard and Caltech, and Berkeley just bought its own.

Although we didn’t see an example of this application, Cassie can apparently hold the body weight of a reasonably sized human. No thanks. Below you can see Cassie make an appearance with Andy Rubin .


Dennis Hong, professor and founding director of RoMeLa (Robotics & Mechanisms Library) of the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department at UCLA, presented the humanoid robots he and his team developed in their lab. They set out to solve a common problem robots have: walking.

Humans are bipedal, so why is it so hard to replicate that in a robot, Hong asks. One of the reasons he said is because the distance between the left and right legs creates a twisting movement that renders forward and backward movement difficult. The resolution is to have them walk sideways. No twisting. So the team developed NABi (non-anthropomorphic biped), a bipedal locomotion robot with no “feet” or “shins.”

To extend the admittedly limited functionality of NABi, the team then created ALPHRED (Autonomous Legged Personal Helper Robot with Enhanced Dynamics). ALPHRED’s limbs, as the team calls them (“not legs, not arms”), form to create multimodal locomotion, because of its multiple types of formations. Depending on the type of movement required of the robot, the limbs change configurations to that of a dog or a horse, or to more of a humanoid, bipedal type.


SuitX develops robotic modules that assist humans in performing everyday actions, such as walking, lifting, bending over and squatting. While you won’t suddenly possess the strength and agility of a Marvel superhero, wearing these modules can help you lift things that are ever-so-slightly heavier than you might be used to. The BackX, LegX and ShoulderX serve to minimize the stress we humans tend to place on our joints.

But infinitely more impressive during the conversation with company co-founder Homayoon Kazerooni was the application the audience saw of the company’s exoskeleton. Arash Bayatmakou fell from a balcony in 2012 which resulted in paralysis. He was told he would never walk again. Five years later, Arash connected with SuitX, and he has been working with a physical therapist to use the device to perform four functions: stand, sit and walk forward and backward. You can follow his recovery here.

Android co-creator isn’t sure whether robots will adopt a single platform

Android co-creator Andy Rubin isn’t so sure whether there will be one software platform to rule all robots. The former Google exec and Playground Global CEO talked in length about the role of platforms for automation at TechCrunch’s TC Sessions: Robotics event at UC Berkeley.

“The business model of platformization is something that is near and dear to my heart,” Rubin said. “For robotics and automatization, the idea of there being one cohesive platform that everyone ends up adopting? I’m not sure.”

Rubin did speak at length about the eventual need for companies to create systems for sharing machine learning data so that these machines will be able to communicate with each other and communicate their learnings so that obstacles only have to be overcome once across different devices.

You can watch the entire talk with Rubin below, which also includes a demonstration of the latest iteration of Cassie, a bipedal robot from Agility Robotics.

Playground is betting big on robots

You find robotics in unexpected corners of Playground Global’s Palo Alto headquarters. They’re in the lobby and scattered amongst the cubicles. Inside the venture fund’s labs, an older Spot Mini stands next to RightHand Robotics’ pick and place mechanical arm.

A recent video shoot in the space shows Boston Dynamics’ latest creation meeting Playground-funded bipedal wunderkind Cassie for the first time. The former also had a run-in with Andy Rubin’s dog in the company parking lot. The poor little terrier was less impressed.

Robotics is a core part of the firm’s portfolio. No surprise, really. It was, after all, co-founder Rubin’s lifelong obsession with the technology that gave Google’s mobile operating system its name. Co-founder and CTO Peter Barrett clearly shares that enthusiasm, as he gives us a tour around the space, pointing out each and every ‘bot surrounding Playground’s delightfully on-brand slide and swings.

“They’re becoming a good investment,” the executive begins. “Robotics is really in its infancy for some of these scale applications. What’s missing has been the link between what are now tour de force controls and physical systems with the intelligence and perception to make them useful.”

At last count, the company lists around 10 robotics investments in its portfolio — including some that are still in stealth mode. Those that it has revealed represent a fairly robust cross-section of technologies. There’s warehouse fulfillment system RightHand and Agility, the Oregon State spin-off that created Cassie. Zippy develops delivery robots and FarmWise builds autonomous systems designed to harvest food for short-staffed farmers.

To hear Barrett describe it, however, the companies are not as disconnected as they might appear at first blush. The CTO casually hints at something larger — a sort of connective tissue that might one day link the far-flung world of robotics. It’s hard not to see echoes of his pitch in Rubin’s earlier work on Android.

“There’s not a good robotics platform the way there is a good platform for making cellphones,” Barrett explains during an interview seated above the titular playground. “There are core components in things like ROS [Robot Operating System], but there’s no real, broad intelligence platforms that imagines robotics the way we think it will evolve.”

ROS, a legacy operating system designed by dearly departed Bay Area robotics company Willow Garage, is currently the closest to what Barrett describes. The open source OS, currently maintained by Open Source Robotics Foundation, is designed to provide the framework for robotic development.

Its mission statement also hints at Playground’s grander goals, being “built from the ground up to encourage collaborative robotics software development.” But the executive believes the teams his firm have developed can take things even further, offering both a springboard for robotics developers and helping to develop a shared knowledge base so both robots and their creators don’t have to redouble efforts every time a new system comes along.

“Every one of those investments would benefit from a common, underlying infrastructure that scales up into the disrupted intelligence that we think these robotic applications will need in the future,” Barrett says. “So, we think it’s worth our while spending the time working on the underlying infrastructure.”

Beyond that, things start to get a bit hazy — because, well, VCs. No point in showing your full hand when you may or may not be building Skynet (without all of the time-traveling, killer robots, of course). But Playground’s larger vision finds the company looking to help robotics grow beyond its own built-in feedback loop.

“If you look into the capital that goes into robotics, an enormous amount of it goes sideways implementing and reimplementing things that we’ve been doing since Shakey was made in the ’50s,” he says, referring to SRI’s groundbreaking, multi-purpose mobile robot.

There are echoes here of Google robotics, Rubin’s post-Android pursuit, which left the world wondering what, precisely the company was building amid an acquisition spree that found the company snapping up Boston Dynamics, Industrial Perception and Bot & Dolly, among others.

With Barrett and Rubin at the helm, along with fellow co-founders Matt Hershenson and Bruce Leak, those goals could finally be realized. After all, what’s the point (or fun) in funding startups if you aren’t going to go big?

“We tend not to look for short-term returns,” says Barrett. “In VC, you have to do something that is almost certainly wrong, otherwise everyone else will do it. The real opportunities are somewhere between the unlikely and the impossible. It’s hard to invest on the other side of impossible, and it’s hard to make money on the other side of unlikely.”

Andy Rubin and Playground will be appearing at TC Sessions: Robotics on May 11 at the UC Berkeley campus. 

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