The spooky robotic head was watching me. As I passed by, it followed me with its eyes and slowly craned in my direction. Then it spoke, its animated lips moving realistically as it promoted an imminent crowdfunding campaign. When I stood still, it looked me over: its sensors examined my face and counted up my wrinkles. Then, rather annoyingly, it correctly guessed my age.
I was interacting with SociBot-Mini, a 60-centimetre-high robot built by Will Jackson and his colleagues at Engineered Arts in Penryn, UK. The model is one of their first generation of robots, already on sale. The company bills it as a futuristic information terminal that people could interact with in a mall, airport or bank, say. And if the Kickstarter campaign is successful, a cheaper, slimmed-down version will follow for home use, as a kind of personal assistant.
“Today’s computer interfaces have moved on very little from the typewriter,” says Jackson. “We have social software and a social internet, but we don’t have social hardware.”
SociBot-Mini uses a depth-sensing camera – similar to Microsoft’s Kinect system – to capture and recognise gestures. It can also capture facial expressions using a webcam. Computer vision software lets it perform tricks like recognising people, working out someone’s mood from their grimaces and smiles, as well as guessing their age. It also has some understanding of speech and comes with chatbot software based on Rosette, which in 2011 won the Loebner prize, awarded for a computer’s ability to hold simple conversations. The idea is to build a system that people enjoy working closely with. “It’ll become a butler who knows you inside out,” says Jackson.
Its transparent plastic face has contours for a nose, mouth and eyes, and is backlit with a digital projector. It can display a generic face like the one that sized me up, or create one based on a headshot of a friend or colleague to add telepresence to voice calls.
“It’s as spooky as all hell,” says Jackson. “We’ve tried it with a couple of our telecommuting colleagues in meetings and when it suddenly turns and joins in the conversation as our colleague Dan, and with his face, it is quite amazing. But you get used to it quickly.”
I ran into SociBot-Mini at the Human-Robot Interaction conference in Bielefield, Germany, earlier this month. It isn’t the only one of its kind. At the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, Samer Al Moubayed is developing an animated head called Furhat to which 3D-printed faces can be attached. The idea is to take infrared scans of someone’s friends and print their faces, so that the appropriate one can be used just before the person calls them.
It sounds like a palaver, but Al Moubayed says being able to animate the 3D-printed face of a real person lends extra authenticity to the telepresence experience. Skype is interested in the project, and will team up with the group developing Furhat to bring animated delegates to the Interspeech conference in Singapore in September.
Tony Belpaeme, who has researched facial projection in robots at Plymouth University in the UK, believes the technology will make a big difference to video chat in particular. “Two dimensional video conferences are quite impoverished experiences. There is still something missing and so we prefer to meet real people. So the more you can bring that 2D experience into the 3D physical space the better the interaction will flow.”
“Having a robot in which your face is projected, carrying all the right expressive signals, will provide an immensely strong presence, even though it will seem uncanny at first,” Belpaeme says.