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Originally published September 12, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 13, 2010 at 3:32 PM

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Brier Dudley

Believer in potential of robotics

There's not much to see in Tandy Trower's Pioneer Square office yet, but I'm hoping that will change by the time I retire.

Seattle Times staff columnist

There's not much to see in Tandy Trower's Pioneer Square office yet, but I'm hoping that will change by the time I retire.

Trower, 57, was one of Microsoft's longest-running employees when he retired last November.

The Washington State University grad joined two months after the first IBM PC was released in 1981.

Over 28 years he was involved with products ranging from Basic to Windows and "Flight Simulator." His grand finale was the Microsoft Robotics platform that he started and launched in 2006.

Trower saw even more potential in robotics and left in November to start a new company, Hoaloha Robotics, to develop "socially assistive" robots that will help older people get by with less help from families and professional caregivers.

So far he's the only employee, but he's working with interns and a professor at the University of Washington and talking to robot manufacturers about collaborating.

His goal is to work with hardware companies to produce assistive robots that could go on sale in three to five years, for $5,000 to $10,000.

Hoaloha — a Hawaiian word for friend — joins a growing field of companies developing new technology for an older population that's expected to more than double in the coming decades.

They'll face an increasingly strained health-care system, which may be offset partly by new technologies that will be familiar — or at least understandable — to baby boomers who spent their lives using computers and the Internet.

In the meantime, the capabilities of robots are increasing dramatically and the cost of components — including sensors and cameras — are falling as they're more widely used in electronics such as Microsoft's upcoming Xbox Kinect controller.

Products are available now to remotely monitor and interact with seniors and make sure they're taking pills and moving around.

Trower's more interested in producing robots that primarily serve their owners, helping people get through their daily lives and cope with aging, disease and injuries.

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They could help people get around, bring a cup of coffee, food or car keys from room to room. Cameras and displays could be used to magnify objects, and the mechanical systems could support physical therapy.

The robots could also be used as information and communication terminals, like a self-propelled iPad, and may even provide companionship and reassurance to people living alone.

The vision isn't unique, but Trower believes he can make an important contribution by developing a common interface and software that will make assistive robots easy to use and customize with applications, similar to the way Apple standardized the interface and application model for smartphones.

"This is what primarily I believe is holding back most of the industry right now. It's not that robots can't be built, it's that nobody has defined the software that's going to turn robots into useful appliances," he said.

Not science fiction

Although the term robot may suggest science fiction or exotic gadgets from Japan, robots are commonly used today in industry and the military.

Trower said the robots he envisions aren't a huge leap beyond today's personal computers. He said they're "really like a PC on wheels."

"The robots that I'm imagining really are little more than the components you would find in the average desktop and laptop," he said. "They have a few extra sensors around them and they're put together in an overall structural framework that when you look at it, you say, 'That's a robot.' "

Trower is looking into speech-recognition and vision-based technologies to control the robots with voice commands and have them recognize faces. He believes the robots should also be adjustable in height, so they can be used while sitting or standing, and have touch controls.

"The components exist; it's not difficult to build such a platform," he said. "What people have lacked is the ability to envision what the right package should contain and, most important, what the applications and user interface should be."

Trower said the industry feels a lot like the early days of the PC, when there were Apple II and TRS-80 computers, but they weren't yet doing a lot to enhance productivity or change people's lives.

Before leaving Microsoft, Trower suggested his idea to executives in the company but didn't find any takers, he said. Craig Mundie, Microsoft's research boss and an early supporter of its robotics work, declined to comment.

Father-in-law inspired him

Trower said one inspiration was his father-in-law, who is in his 80s and lives alone.

Another was Trower's former boss, Bill Gates, who inspired him to do something good for the world beyond delivering Microsoft technology.

"Although we're on somewhat different tracks that was my motivation, too," he said.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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