Meet the Art District: Pam Gheysar

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Photo Credit: Rachel Gomez

The other day, I got a chance to sit down with Gamma Two Robotics’ “liaison to the outside world”, Pam Gheysar. She told me about the robots through the eyes of a layperson, Gamma Two’s involvement in the art district, and about some of her favorite Denver spots.

First, can you give a brief introduction about yourself and Gamma Two Robotics?

I’ve actually been friends with (founders of Gamma Two) Louise and Jim Gunderson for the past decade, which is how I actually got into Gamma Two. I didn’t know anything about robotics. I had just been laid off after 22 years in TelCo, so I’m a little bit of a geek. They had decided to hold their First First Friday in May of 2009, and as you can imagine, I was having a pretty bad week, but I thought “I am not staying home on a Friday night. I’m going to go down and see my friends and see the robots that I’ve heard so much about,” and a week later, they offered me the opportunity with them.

What they said I brought to the table was a connection to the outside world. I have a foot in the technology world and am enough of a geek, because they do some really big science here. They wanted someone to be their outreach, help them market the robots, be involved with the Art District, and be that outward face.

Louise and Jim started making the robots after going to a symposium on robots and robotic theory. They were asked to write a book after it, which they did, called “Robots, Reasoning, and Reification.” Once it was published, they decided to put their money where their book was. A book on theory was really nothing unless you proved your theory. They believed that they could make this brain that could sense and perceive the world as humans do.

One of Louise’s degrees is in biology. They both desired a robot that could be helpful to people in their natural, dynamic environment.  Combining Louise’s knowledge of biology and Jim’s extensive background in Artificial Intelligence (AI), they were able to create a brain that allows the robot to sense the environment and react to changes without being reprogrammed for changes, much like humans.  For example, if you rearrange the furniture in your home, you do not have to be reprogrammed to walk around it; you see the furniture and automatically avoid it.  This is critical for a robot situated in a home environment.  The robot must accommodate the human, not the other way around.  The top priority for Gamma Two’s robots is that they are useable and useful to those they support, such as the elderly, allowing them to age in place, and the disabled, providing them privacy and support at the same time.

There’s tape on the floor over there [points to the lab floor], but it’s not necessary. There are no RFIDs, no GPS, no joysticks…they just use their brain. We don’t tell them to move like three feet forward, turn left 90 degrees, then go ten feet forward. We say, “go to the kitchen.” If you put obstacles in the way they can get around them. We have video on the website of them planning around an obstacle, actually that set of drawers over there, that they know is an object and not a human. They will go around the object. They used me as the human and the robot asked me to move, because I was in its path. If you don’t move, they’ll treat you like an object and go around you, but they know humans will move if asked politely.

Do you know the story of why Gamma Two came to the Art District?

Yes. First of all, Louise and Jim are big fans of art, and they were looking for a space. They found space in the redone Bolt Factory, which literally used to be a bolt factory, which is why the floor is the way it is. Also, believing that if these robots are going to be in your homes, they should match your aesthetic. They wanted to build something that could have an exterior that you can modify.

It turns out having people come in on First Fridays has been an absolute boon for the growth and development of the robots. It’s testing that you can’t pay for. Visitors are not nice to the robots, and they often suggest modifications that the team didn’t think of. I mean the security robot came out of going to the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010, and someone asked, “can that go into a warehouse where it’s 110 degrees and patrol, where I don’t want people and can’t pay people to be?”

So the robots at Gamma Two are special because of their “Cybernetic Brain.” Can you tell me more about that?

It is biologically inspired. It’s actually based on a Salamander’s brain. Ounce for ounce, your brain takes much more energy to process things than anything else in your body. Your brain is expensive real estate. Salamanders are not really bright, but they’re very efficient in how they process things, and they survive.

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Photo Credit: Rachel Gomez

With Louise’s knowledge of biology and Jim’s knowledge of AI, they put those two things together and made a reasoning, functional brain that can learn and easily adapt to changes. The robots can roll around here on First Friday and not run into people or things, and can identify people and offer you a snack. 

Can you tell me about the Gamma Two lineup of robots and some of the capabilities they have?

Well, the initial robots Basil and Wilma were to help the elderly and disabled, but we’re finding that’s a longer path to market. So, built on the same engine, just a little bit bigger and beefier, and with more room for sensors, is Vigilus, the security robot. Everything Vigilus can do is built in the earlier robots. The home healthcare robot can find you in your home and ask you if you’ve taken your pills, bring your pills, and if you haven’t taken your pill or refuse, they can call your caregiver or your children and tell them “your mother isn’t taking her pills.” These robots are also voice commanded, so you can tell them “go to the kitchen” and they can take your tray of food.

They also can be equipped with video (coming soon) and two-way audio. So with the security robot, it can patrol the warehouse at night, and instead of having a security guard sitting in a room watching a monitor, the robot will do that for you. If it detects a change that you need the know about, it will call you. You can then say “do a 360 sweep of the room,” “check these access points,” or “let me take over with joystick control.” 

Also, our robots are not expensive. There’s no other robot that we can find on the market that has a brain that can actually learn. The ones that are out there in the hospitals, tugging along food trays, are a benefit to the hospitals no doubt, but they go between $100,000 and $400,000. We expect ours to hit the market for between $25,000 and $35,000, depending on the sensor packages.

If you can keep someone in their homes and provide them some safety, security, and privacy… Some people wont ask a caregiver or friend to get their clothes out of the laundry, but they’ll ask a robot. They don’t have a problem telling a robot to do menial chores. There’s a real interesting social layer where the robots can benefit people. And for $25,000…assisted living is anywhere between $3,500 and $5,000 a month, so if you can keep someone in their home for a year or longer, you’ve already got your return on investment.

Where do you see Gamma Two going in the next few years?

I think after funding, which we’re seeking now, that I’d say 6 to 8 months after funding, we’ll be producing robots. It’ll likely be the security model. I see Gamma Two as a between 6 to 8 million dollar company in the next few years.

So a Gamma Two First Friday Event isn’t like a typical gallery event. Can you tell me what people can expect from a Gamma Two First Friday?

Well first of all, the best snacks in the art district served by a robot. And then conversation, with the inventors, who are very approachable and warm. They’re real people. I mean, I met them on a camping trip. They’re brilliant, but they’re still real people, and they enjoy talking to people about anything.

We have nice crowds, a lot of fun, and then on the half hours we usually do formal demonstrations of the robots’ abilities. The serving is cool, but it’s really a low level functionality of the robots. We’ll do formal demonstrations where we abuse the intern. We put a chair in front of the robot and ask it what it sees, and it’ll say “I see a chair.” Then we have it look away and replace the chair with the intern and ask if it notices a change. It’ll say, “the chair is gone and now there’s a person.” We’ll also have it come to the bar area, and I’ll put a beer on top of it for Jim.

Going back to your other question about what I see for the robots, once we’re in manufacturing and actually making money, one of the big things that everyone here wants is arms. Everything is off the shelf except the brains, so Louise estimates that it would take her six months to integrate vision into the robots. Then there are already all kinds of magnificent arms, hands, and picker-uppers, so we’d find the ones that work best for our ‘bots and integrate them.

It says online that you’re the liaison the outside world for Gamma Two, so what’s your day-to-day like?

I do the Facebook updates, keep in communication with other robotic companies, and coordinate meetings and events. I also do a lot of competitive intelligence research, so I’m looking for the other robots around the world and what other robotocists are doing. I also produce the First Fridays. I cut these guys off from engineering…and they pitch in, don’t get me wrong. It’s very much a team environment here. I also do the database updates for our contacts and stuff like that. Lastly, I just do outreach where I can. We have a meeting later at the Breckenridge Brewery, so we support local businesses too (laughs).

Outside of the Art District, what are some local Denver spots you recommend people check out?

I’m a big fan of microbrews, so I head to places that have craft beer and good food, like Rackhouse Pub, Interstate, and Breckenridge Brewery. One of my favorite places is Ernie’s at 44th and Federal. As it turns out, I have a friend who works at Ernie’s, who is an artist as well, and has her art displayed at Studio 12 Gallery, next door, right now. It’s cool; that small world feel.

Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell the world?

Come to Gamma Two to see the future. It’s here now.


Tonight, stop by Gamma Two Robotics for their First Friday event at 209 Kalamath St, Unit 13, in the redone Bolt Factory. To see videos of the robots in action, check out their website at http://www.gamma-two.com. For more updates, follow the original robot, Basil Gunderson on Facebook.


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