The production floors of tomorrow could look much different than today: envision robots working on an assembly line controlled by human hand gestures. Purdue University Professor of Mechanical Engineering Karthik Ramani says the technology is likely just 10 years away, and he’s invented a robotic toy that is putting the power of hand gesture technology in the hands of the future work force. Just days away from commercialization, Ziro aims to capture the imagination and ingenuity of kids and kids at heart.

The Ziro robotic kit is comprised of many wireless “joints” that can bend and rotate different directions, and using Velcro, kids can attach any material to the joints—think cardboard, plastic containers, or any object sitting around the house. 

Rather than relying on a handheld remote to control their homemade robots, kids animate Ziro by wearing a glove with special sensors. After using a smartphone to program a series of movements, Ziro responds to gestures of the user’s hand to make the corresponding movement.

“A lot of kids have gotten into playing with tablets and smartphones—which has sort of kept us away from engaging in the real world and being spatially engaged,” says Ramani, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Ziro’s parent company zeroUI. “When you puppeteer [Ziro]—when you’re controlling it with your hand—you feel that it’s an extension of yourself.”

When kids tire of their first creation, the reusable kit can be used again and again by simply taking apart the joints and starting over—adding new material or objects to the joints and re-arranging them for an endless number of original creations.

As recently reported on Inside INdiana Business Television, Ziro was a standout at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, earning one of three “Best Maker-Friendly Technology” awards and being named a “Best of CES Finalist.” It was Ziro’s first major public appearance and served as validation for its visionaries.

“It was a great thing to see the acceptance from the community. We sort of became an underdog star,” says Ramani. “We were like a magnet; there were so many people in our booth. All of us were demonstrating and talking non-stop—I lost my voice.”

Building on the CES momentum and subsequent national media attention, Ziro is poised to go to market in the coming days with a price around $200. The toy will be for sale through Indiegogo, Inc., an international crowdfunding website, and dependent on its performance, major retail stores to follow. It will be the first commercial gesture-control robotics kit.

“Controlling things with your hand is very fundamental to us being human,” says Ramani. “We’re sort of bringing the human element back into robotics—we took it out in the past.”

Ramani says gesture-controlled robotics “isn’t that far away” in the manufacturing environment; he wants Ziro to help prepare the next generation of workers.

“One person can command an army of robots with their hand,” says Ramani. “People at Purdue and [colleagues] from General Electric—some of their senior people immediately saw the potential [when they saw Ziro]. You can do things with your hands, but a robot can amplify what you’re doing. There are many different ramifications of the glove in a manufacturing environment, from assembly to operating machines, to interacting with hardware that is far away from you—basically, amplifying the human capability and capacity, but also making it very intuitive.”

Designed to be gender-neutral so more girls can catch the robotics bug, Ziro also attracted grownups at CES, revealing to Ramani that the robot has an even larger customer base than he originally thought—increasing his confidence that Ziro will disrupt the traditional robotic toy market.

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Ramani says gesture-controlled robotics in the manufacturing environment “isn’t that far away.”

Ramani says Ziro is only the beginning.

Ramani says Ziro makes robotics more approachable.