I was once served tea by Honda's Asimo, arguably the most advanced humanoid robot in the world.
Watching the machine sidle up to my table and serve the tea with the elegance of a veteran waiter, and then bow to me before retreating, was nothing short of astonishing.
The experience reinforced my belief that no matter how many times you see robots in photos or videos, nothing can match a real-life experience.
Asimo can be hard to meet, but with a lavishly illustrated new educational app from IEEE Spectrum, you can get interactive with him and 125 other bots -- from Rethink Robotics' Baxter assembly bot to Waseda University's keyboard-playing Wabot 2, and learn all about them. It's the next best thing to seeing robots up close.
The selection skews toward humanoid machines, but industrial, military, and exoskeleton-style devices are also featured. They range from cute to downright creepshow.
One of the coolest features is 360-degree views of the machines that users can control by swiping their iPads. These were created from original photography shot around the world, and let you see Adebaran Robotics' Nao, for instance, with remarkable detail and clarity.
The app packs nearly 500 photos; more than 400 videos; dozens of audio interviews with prominent roboticists (who knew that iRobot founder Colin Angle was inspired by that squeaky, rolling bot on the Death Star?); articles from Spectrum's Automaton Web site; robot specs and ratings; as well as features on the history of real and sci-fi robots and concepts like the Uncanny Valley.
Not bad for $4.99. At 410MB, however, the app can take a long time to download and install, depending on your setup.
It also features a survey-style comparison of pairs of robots ("Which robot hand would you rather shake?"), which is fun but not quite entertaining enough for small children. Older kids with an interest in machines, however, may find this app addictive.
"Robots are awesome because everyone loves them," says Erico Guizzo, co-designer of the app and editor of IEEE Spectrum's Automaton. "But many people still think robots are science fiction. With this app we wanted a broader audience to understand that robots are more than just movie magic. I really think that the robots are coming, and they're going to change our lives."
Before they do so, you'd do well to learn more about these machines. Robots for iPad is the perfect place to start.