Robots are getting friendlier. Or creepier, depending on your perspective. Meet Socibot, a new design from the U.K. company Engineered Arts. It can decipher your facial expressions to figure out your mood, and then react using its own human-like face.
A photo is projected on the robot’s head, and then software animates the features–the robot’s eyes can follow people around the room, and its expressions mimic humans down to the tiniest detail. When someone walks in front of it, the robot’s pupils dilate.
“It mimics the muscle layout of your face, so we can tweak the facial expressions in very realistic ways and bring very human expressions onto the robot,” says Nic Carey, research coordinator at Engineered Arts.
The robot is also equipped with cameras in each eye, so it can carefully watch and analyze your own expressions. A facial recognition system tracks the outlines of your eyes and mouth and then calculates how you’re feeling, and then responds in kind.
The company plans to supply the robot first in places where automated systems are already being used. “In the U.K., for example, we have automated check-in at doctors offices, and it’s quite impersonal,” Carey explains. “It can be a bit confronting. One way to start bringing some humanity back is to use something like Socibot which does have human reactions, and can talk back to you and greet you by name.”
It uses voice recognition technology similar to Siri’s, but because it’s also analyzing your expressions, may do a better job of understanding you. “One of the reasons we’re trying to bring in gesture and facial recognition is so that you can communicate with the robot using more than words,” Carey says. “So the robot can judge how the interaction is going even without understanding what you’re saying.”
Socibot can also be used to represent you at a meeting: Just project your own face onto its head, and it will provide a 3-D-alternative to Skype. “It can be you, basically,” Carey says. “You can move the head around remotely and really move around the room as if you were there.”
The company initially developed a larger version that was first used in an exhibit at a science museum. “We came at the tech from the point of view of communication–how do we best communicate very complex ideas to people who might not have a lot of background?” Carey says. “I think the human form is the best way of communicating with humans.”