I took control of the giant robot hand Jeff Bezos called 'weirdly natural' — and he was right

Isobel Hamilton/Business InsiderShadow Robotics has built a robotic hand that can be controlled by a haptic feedback glove.
  • Shadow Robotics is a London-based company which has been building robot hands for 22 years.
  • Recently it showcased one of its newest robots at Amazon’s robotics conference re:MARS, where Jeff Bezos had a go controlling the robot hands.
  • The hands are controlled by a haptic-feedback glove. That means that not only do the hands copy what the human controller is doing, they also relay the feeling of touch back to them.
  • Business Insider got a hands-on demonstration with the gloves to see how easy they are to operate, how natural they feel, and what the future might hold for them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Tucked away in an unremarkable-looking north London building is a robot that looks and feels like the progenitor for “Pacific Rim”-style mechs.

Shadow Robotics has a simple M.O.: it builds robot hands. Most recently, Shadow made a splash at Jeff Bezos’ re:MARS robotics conference when the Amazon CEO tried out its new set of robot hands, which are controlled remotely by a haptic-feedback glove. In layman’s terms, this means not only do the robotic hands mirror the person’s movements, they also relay the sensation of touch back to them.


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I went to Shadow’s London office to try the hands out for myself. The office looks every inch like a tech startup, complete with two office dogs – Milo the Jack Russell Terrier and Henry the Husky – but the company has actually been going for 22 years. For most of its lifespan, it was focused purely on building robot hands for research, but in the last few years, it’s broken more into the consumer space.

While Shadow made the robot hands themselves, the whole project has been done in tandem with two other companies, HaptX and Syntouch. HaptX develops VR and reproducing the sensation of touch for people operating machines remotely, and is responsible for the gloves. Syntouch specialises in making materials capable of relaying touch to people, and made the touch sensors that go on the end of the robot’s fingers.

Here’s what it was like to use the gloves:


First, I had to put on the glove.

Isobel Asher Hamilton/Business InsiderEngineer Kirsty helped me put the glove on.

In the background, Henry – one of Shadow’s two office dogs – had a snooze.


Here’s a closer look at the glove’s hardware.

Isobel Asher Hamilton/Business InsiderThe glove was developed by HaptX.

The glove was created by a company called HaptX, which specialises in haptic feedback systems. It relays the feeling of touch with a bunch of inflatable pads, which inflate and deflate to create pressure on your own fingers.

The glove itself is a little heavy, and is has a long cable running out the back connecting it to the other hardware.


Once the glove was synced up with the robot hand, I was ready to go.

Isobel Asher Hamilton/Business Insider

To sync up, I had to place my hand in a similar position and at a similar angle to the resting position of the hand.


I could even feel very gentle sensations from the robot.

Isobel Asher Hamilton/Business Insider

The pads on the robot’s fingers were developed by Syntouch, and even the feeling of someone touching the pads very lightly was clearly perceptible through the glove.


I was given a simple task: to remove wooden hoops from a stick.


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I was amazed at how quickly I got used to the hands, and taking the hoops off the stick was disarmingly easy. The dexterity and delicacy with which the hand was able to mirror my movements was amazing.


Putting the hoops back on the stick was not so easy.


viaGIPHY

When the time came to replace the hoops, the hand started to feel decidedly less dexterous. I dropped multiple rings, and gave up on replacing them in the right order. It felt a bit like my motor control had regressed to that of my 5 year-old self. Eventually, I managed it, but it took me about three times as long as it had to remove the hoops.


Robots can be somewhere you don’t want to be.

Shadow RoboticsShadow Robotics’ managing director Rich Walker.

Teleoperation is the ability to do things from far away, as managing director Rich Walker explains.

“[It’s] the idea that the robot hand could be somewhere that you don’t want to be. Difficult, dirty, dangerous, distant,” he told Business Insider.

One example he gives is the handling of radioactive material in nuclear power plants, which is currently done using big, heavyweight gloves through walls.


Could robots let you go on vacation?

Isobel Asher Hamilton/Business Insider

However, this robot in particular was inspired by a more futuristic idea: remote, VR holidays. Walker says the company was approached in the middle of last year by Japanese airline All Nippon Airways, which is developing its own “telepresence” wing. All Nippon asked for a demo machine to showcase their idea that, in the future, workers could go on holiday using just a VR headset and a robot placed far away, be it a mountain lake or a beach.

Walker doesn’t anticipate that the current iteration of the robot and gloves will become a popular alternative to holidays. “It’s a bit hard to get out of the office,” he said.

However, he doesn’t discount the idea that VR immersion in remote settings could one day become mainstream. “I’m still surprised by the amount of time people spend in ‘World of Warcraft,’ which is going on holiday in a fantasy world,” he said.

The technology still has a very long way to go before it could give people any kind of enjoyable VR-enabled vacation, however.

The pads are good at mimicking pressure, but heat and texture are still beyond them – not to mention bulky VR headsets and robots trundling around tourist sites translating to a pretty jarring holiday experience.

But the industry applications seem far less distant now I’ve got my hands on the hardware.

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