First came Geminoid, now there's Robokind. The diminutive educational robot coated with Frubber, a semi-convincing kind of synthetic robot skin, can replicate a great variety of human expressions. But is this a good thing?
The firm behind the Robokind devices has been working on this technology for some time. Now the latest product, a suite of knee-high droids intended for educational and research uses, has sprung Athena-like from the brain of company founder David Hanson and research into the soft, malleable "frubber" synthetic skin. The robot is powered by sophisticated servos that let it walk, gesture, and make extremely complex movements of its face—including aping brow movements, eye and eyelid movements and complicated mouth moves that can produce a smile. It's available as a range of robots with differing sophistication—the full bot with expressive head (be it an Einstein replica or one of the other male and female heads) and 33 degrees of freedom costs nearly $15,000, but you can drop the moving body for a static one and keep the expressive head for just $8,500.
What's the device for? Hanson plans for the robots to be used for fun (like robotic football matches) and for research—the device has full wireless control authority via computer, and it includes stereoscopic eyeball-cams, twin microphones, voice synthesis and a bunch of inertial sensors for a full range of robot-to-real-world interactivity. There's also the possibility Robokind could be used in educational situations, to introduce students to sophisticated programmable robots (like a smaller, cheaper PR2) and in medical situations, to improve how kids with autism react to the real world.
Robokind's expressiveness (along with its relatively low price) are probably the most interesting aspect of the invention. That's because unlike some of its peers, and despite the comedic/cartoony nature of the rubber skins, the robots really can manipulate their faces to mimic human emotion. This is a fascinating and perhaps vital trait for the future of robots, which will be increasingly involved in our daily lives.
It's this kind of man-machine interactivity that brought us Geminoid DK—the latest uber-realistic android from famed roboteer Hiroshi Ishiguro, which Danish professor Henrik Scharfe is using for man-machine interface research. We spoke to Scharfe about his research, and he describes meeting his robotic clone as "surreal," noting that when it's off, his robotic clone is as unconvincing as a doll. Then it moves, and replicates human expressions and "it's an entirely different experience."
This is precisely the topic Scharfe's research is looking into—how people "feel working with robots every day" that will one day work partly autonomously. Making them behave in convincingly human ways is one way to put human co-workers at ease.
Geminoid is evidently far more sophisticated than Robokind, but the tiny bot is far cheaper and so more consumers will likely encounter it before they meet a Geminoid creation. With other research into making robots movements more convincingly human, it's easy to conclude that robots that walk, talk, and emote like us are going to be arriving sooner than we all may have dreamed. Here's hoping that when they do arrive they'll have the face of European academics or cute, rubberized manga-like looks rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger's more threatening visage.
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