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Illah Nourbakhsh Headshot

It Takes One Robot to Tango

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Google announced Project Tango today, which combines rate gyros and accelerometers in an Android phone prototype that also contains a rangefinder. The basic package combines the smarts of a Microsoft Kinect with the mapping smarts of Google's StreetView and Maps. The result: Walk around a space and create a three-dimensional model of that environment. This will have simple, early applications, such as quickly generating a 3D layout of the rooms in your home; but the long-term implications for our robot-infused futures are much more interesting, and far more consequential. I have argued in many blogs about how corporations will use robotic sensing, modeling and telepresence to break out of the digital world -- essentially tearing down the wall between cyber and physical worlds, infusing all the marketing and monetizing know-how they have honed on the Internet side into a much larger universe of mixed, digital-physical reality. So, if we are tango dancing into joint digital-physical reality, I think it would be interesting to identify some of the dance moves along the way. Here's one set of predictions:

Move 1: Island Fever

Consumer electronics that measure our world effortlessly will become cheap enough to pervade society. Everyone scans somewhere, and the result is a massive shared library of outdoor and indoor spaces with three-dimensional models, annotations and high-resolution imagery all combined -- each an explorable island unto itself. Enter any such island of data, say your local Target store, and you can navigate the entire store from your computer.

Move 2: Blurring the Digital-Physical Buying Gap

Moving within a digital-physical island can be interesting, but the question is, can you vote with your wallet? When you walk into that incredible crosstown Pizzeria, you will want to order a pie to be delivered to your home; when you browse a gift shop in another country, you'll want your discovery to arrive on your doorstep, and fast. With the right information cues built into the scanned store, this will be a breeze, and the beneficiary middleman will be the same server infrastructure providing you the explorable island view to begin with -- except now, they are dealing with remote point of sales and store-customer interactions as well. The race will be on to provide the best explorable, digital representations of physical data with the sales intelligence to boot.

Move 3: One Earth-Sized Video Game

Model-building does not stop until everything is modeled -- and as we approach 100 percent capture, we end up with a grand virtual world that is intimately linked to the real, physical world. We have cloned our built world, and the clone is digital, which means every electronic search, exploration and transaction opportunity stands ready for exploitation.

Move 4: Mobile Telepresence Demolishes the Divide

The difference between Move 3 and 4 is a revolution in time. A giant digital simulacrum is stale the moment it is finished. The real world changes, and the model doesn't. I cannot walk with my aunt on the streets of Santa Barbara if she is there physically and I am visiting a stale digital replica. But when pervasive sensors and pervasive mobile robotics are measuring the real world and exploring the real world 24-7, then the story is altogether different. The clone is not a clone any longer -- it is locked to reality and, in fact, defines its own augmented reality as something arguably just as real.

Now recall what happens every time you follow a news story or search links online today; you face two interaction realities: A voyage toward the information you are reaching for, and a simultaneous pull toward content you didn't ask for, but which is designed to be as enticing as humanly possible -- optimal marketing. When the physical world's static graphics melt into a digital reality, expect every act of exploration to combine modeled reality with the very best possible marketing that is just right for you. Those storefront displays may not look quite the same to you, with all those hikers wearing Arcteryx coats, as they do to everyone else walking down the road, robot or not. We can find living in a personally customized world thrilling or imprisoning, and it will be our natural reaction to sometimes embrace the personal care of our bespoke reality, and sometime revolt against the outside agenda that tailors our environment just so. Good luck with that.

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