Fast Company

Meet Elfoid, the Smartphone Pocket Robot

Elfoid robot

Smartphones are getting smarter, and telepresence robots are hitting the mainstream--create a mashup and you get Elfoid, a "phone" that can also share emotions via a mini-me bot you keep in your pocket.

Elfoid, revealed in Japan today, is a product of the Advanced Telecommunications Research International--and specifically of the mind of famous roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. It's a chunky, grippable Kewpie-doll-sized android that's primarily a phone for transmitting voice but also broadcasts "human presence" from one point to another.

When you make a call to your distant Elfoid-owning loved one, your face is scanned by a computer that captures the motions of your features and head. This data is transmitted alongside the typical voice channel using standard 3G phone protocols. A suite of motors and actuators in the Elfoid try to manipulate the tiny droid's generic features to copy your actual moves. The little bot has a skin that feels "soft to the touch," and is based on a larger telepresence droid called Telenoid that the firm produced in 2010 (shown in a video below). In its initial prototype, the droid can't actually move its face, instead confining its emotional actions to glowing lights and whole-body movements, but the facility is being developed for future versions.

If the concept feels freakily familiar, that's because it is. Ishiguro is also behind the almost-lifelike Geminoid-F robot, which was cloned from a real twentysomething Japanese model and is capable of cracking a convincing smile.

In the new invention, Ishiguro is trying to imagine how our future smartphones will move beyond the basic communication available over voice and video calling (think Apple's FaceTime system and video calls on Skype and other VoIP services). As video calling in particular becomes more common, the way we communicate will change--it's easier to sense someone's feelings when you can see their face, picking up the subtle non-verbal nuances that happen in face-to-face chats, and we've all had our fair share of misunderstood, emotional voice-only phone calls. Smartphones are leading this, but they're still a somewhat flat technology. Ishiguro imagines his inventions will help capture more non-verbal communication, and really boost a sense of telepresence.

Is this one step too far into uncanny valley? Would you tolerate a soft, wiggly droid (which one writer compared to a "fetus body") in your hand, animatedly replicating the fury of your partner during one of those "Where the heck are you, I expected you here an hour ago!" phone calls?

For what it's worth, it could certainly turn booty calls into something totally...new.

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1 Comments

  • Chris Niccolls

    It's a strange and bizarre little device, but it's also kinda' interesting. I don't know if it is ever going to have a place in the corporate world (does give new meaning to talking head), but it certainly looks like something that could hit big with the teen crowd. I wonder if there's a place for a full size version... perhaps in medicine... a way to have house calls again (if you throw in a camera and a few other features)?