Attack of the Robot Bears
When designing a robot designed to interact with people in difficult environments, it is a real challenge to make the robot accessible and friendly to humans. Too humanoid and you run the risk of entering the Uncanny Valley; too mechanical, and it's not comforting at all. Two different companies, Vecna Robotics and Japan's RIKEN, have decided that teddy bear-like robots are the way to go.
The BEAR -- Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot -- has been around for a few years and has even put in some conference appearances, but I haven't seen it move before. Vecna -- who has also just won some funding for continued research on its robot -- recently released a video showing testing of the BEAR alongside computer animation of its intended battlefield role. But the BEAR is also designed to be capable of lifting humans, an application which Vecna says it would like to market to hospitals and nursing homes, where lifting patients is one of the most difficult and common problems encountered by healthcare staff.
By the way, Vecna has an entire YouTube channel, if you want to keep up with future BEAR videos.
The more recently announced robot is the RIBA -- Robot for Interactive Body Assistance. Developed jointly by a research lab and a company in Japan, the RIBA isn't designed for military applications like the BEAR, but does share the healthcare application and the teddy bear face. It can lift a 61kg (135 lbs), compared to the BEAR's theoretical 500 lbs.
RIBA, I think, has the "teddy bear" thing going on a little better than the BEAR robot does, but I'm not feeling too warm and fuzzy about either of them. Are comforting character faces the way to go? Should we try harder to make humanoid robots friendly-looking? Or is there a better direction go to?