77 teams enter next stage of ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition for virtual travelers

The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

In the years ahead, such systems could make it possible for healthcare providers to do “virtual house calls,” for tourists to experience exotic locales from their living rooms, and for grandparents to play with the little ones even if they live hundreds of miles away.

At last October’s GeekWire Summit, Kevin Kajitani, co-director of ANA Holdings’ Avatar division, explained how a simple telerobotic system makes it possible for him to check in with his family while he’s on the road. “The first time I approached my son with the avatar, he said, ‘Papa!’ And we started playing,” Kajitani recalled.

The avatars built to compete for prizes in the ANA-backed competition will almost certainly be more sophisticated. They’ll have to be capable of performing a prescribed list of tasks remotely. Such tasks could include picking up and throwing a ball, playing a board game or giving a hug.

In an email exchange with GeekWire, Locke said the Avatar XPRIZE’s judging panel is developing the specific testing scenarios for the contests ahead, with an emphasis on perception, mobility;, exploration and physical and social interaction.

“It is important for testing scenarios to reflect challenges that the most current technology has not yet addressed,” Locke wrote, “so scenarios may be modified such that they address current market challenges at the time of testing.”

The 77 teams on the current roster were selected from a field of 99 registered teams. As many as 75 of the entrants will move into the semifinals testing phase later this year. Based on that phase of testing, up to 20 of those teams will be chosen next year to share a $2 million purse — and move on to the finals in 2022.

At the finals, the top-rated team will win $5 million. The second-place prize is $2 million, and $1 million will go to the third-place team.

“XPRIZE is currently in the process of researching testing venues and will make an announcement by end of 2020,” Locke told GeekWire.” All locations are being considered, including Japan. Teams will be invited to a single testing location for both semifinals and finals testing.”

The avatar contest is just one of several million-dollar contests that have been organized by XPRIZE over the past couple of decades. Other notable competitions include the Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight, the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for super-efficient cars, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for handheld medical diagnostic devices and the Anu Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE for wearable safety devices.

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