A UNLV team was named one of just 15 finalists vying for the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE, a worldwide competition that draws top tech talent to develop and display a functional human-robot avatar system.
The global challenge, which is open to anyone, requires teams to create a humanoid robot and an accompanying system that can be controlled by a person via wearable technology. UNLV is one of just seven university-based teams among the 15 finalists, all of whom will compete in Fall 2022 to determine who will take home the grand prize.
UNLV’s team, nicknamed Avatar-Hubo, is led by UNLV engineering professor and noted roboticist Paul Oh, along with undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Engineering’s Drones and Autonomous Systems Laboratory (DASL).
“Our team strives to be a driving force in the innovation of technologies that will allow people to transcend the limitation of location by teleporting their presence anywhere across the globe—or beyond—in real time with the help of a robotic avatar,” says Oh.
Oh’s team has been working on its metal Rebel – a 5 ft. 5 in., 175-pound humanoid robot – and its accompanying avatar system since the competition was announced in 2018. The avatar system functions as an extension of the person remotely operating its controls. It can walk, climb, see, sense, and even feel anything it’s engaging with. UNLV’s robot also has an advantage in that it can crouch into a rolling position and move about more quickly than a robot functioning solely in humanoid form.
UNLV advanced to the semifinals earlier this year, and last month Oh and a team of 10 students traveled to Miami to test their mettle in competition against 36 other teams. UNLV’s robot and its operator were tasked with operating from remote locations, they picked up and examined a vase in a museum environment, and they even assembled a puzzle. And in a ranking of the 15 XPRIZE finalists, UNLV ranked sixth heading into the last stage of the competition.
“Competitions like XPRIZE expose our students to the very best in the world, because they too are among the best in the world,” says Oh. “I tell my students that it doesn't just matter if you win, but the opportunity to meet potential future colleagues in the field and network with leading scientists will pay huge dividends and lead to future research and job opportunities.”
Robotics for Global Good
Still in its early stages, Oh says the big picture idea behind the wearable technology concept presented in the XPRIZE is that it can transport the skills – and more importantly the physical presence – of top scientists and doctors to rural and at-risk communities almost anywhere in the world without the need for practitioners to ever leave their office.
Translating human talent into robotics and related technology is what initially guided Oh’s creation of the DASL lab at UNLV when he arrived on campus in 2015. Following the tragedies of 9/11 and later Hurricane Katrina, Oh spent time at Boeing Corp. and was inspired by the potential of humanoid robotics and artificial intelligence to converge to support disaster response.
“Imagine a world in which human lives aren’t risked to support disaster response, a world in which the best surgical oncologist in America can save the lives of multiple people on all seven continents daily,” says Oh, who also served for a time as a program director for robotics at the National Science Foundation. “That’s what we’re ultimately trying to do.”
His team, including an earlier version of the Avatar-Hubo robot, have already developed a track record of success in global challenges. In 2015, the team finished 8th overall in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Challenge Finals, an elite worldwide competition of disaster response robots.
The XPRIZE Final Test
The XPRIZE is sponsored by All Nippon Airways, Japan’s largest airline. Organizers say the goal is to develop an avatar system that will deploy human’s senses, actions, and presence to a remote location in real-time, leading to a more connected world.
“While it’s been difficult this year to predict what the future will bring for the evolving health landscape, these avatar solutions will solve real world problems and can bring people together in in more ways than ever before,” says Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE. “We’re looking forward to supporting these incredible finalist teams competing in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE and their technology into the future.”
The 15 finalists share a milestone prize purse of $2 million, of which UNLV already earned $100,000, and they’ll compete next fall for a share of the $8 million finals prize purse. The winning team takes home $5 million. Details on finals, including the date and specific competition tasks, are forthcoming.
Learn more about the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition.