UPDATE: I've obtained more photos of Elfoid—see below.
Elfoid, a hybrid of cellphone and robot, transmits voice and motion to convey a person's "presence."
A pocket-size android shaped like a fetus might be your next cellphone.
Meet Elfoid, a miniature anthropomorphic robot unveiled today in Japan that works like a cellphone but is designed to transmit not only voice but also "human presence."
That's right. Next time you call your friends, you might be uploading yourself into this fetus body right into their pockets -- and their hands. Can you feel me now?
The idea is you use a motion-capture system to transmit your face and head movements to the Elfoid, which would reproduce them, plus your voice, on its own little body, thereby conveying your presence.
The contraption is a creation of Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, famous for creating android clones of himself and of a twentysomething Japanese model, among others. [See Ishiguro, in a black jacket, playing with an Elfoid, photos at the bottom.]
Last August, Ishiguro and his colleagues at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, known as ATR, where he's a visiting group leader, unveiled the Telenoid [photo right], an infant-size telepresence android that resembles, depending on whom you ask, Casper the Friendly Ghost, an overgrown sperm, or a developing fetus. Talk about embryonic technology.
Now the Japanese researchers have shrunk the Telenoid into a little robot elf you can carry in your pocket. The Elfoid P1, introduced today at a press conference in Tokyo, combines the robotic technology of the Telenoid with cellphone capability, allowing people to interact in a way that they can "feel each other's presence," according to Ishiguro. It seems the Elfoid can't move its face and limbs as the Telenoid does, but the researchers say they're planning to use microactuators to improve the device's movements.
His team received technical support from Qualcomm Japan to use a 3G communication unit on the android, and NTT Docomo assisted the researchers in testing the device.
Ishiguro says cellphones are constantly improving, and smartphones showed they can have superb interface designs, but one thing has remained the same: Voice still plays a big role in how we communicate, and voice has limitations.
Ishiguro says the human body -- capable of displaying and recognizing subtle cues and gestures -- is the most effective and natural interface for communication, so trying to use androids to capture these advantages makes sense. With the Elfoid, the researchers want to create "an innovative communication medium" capable of conveying human presence to remote locations using voice, appearance, motion, and touch (the Elfoid has a "soft, pleasant-to-the-touch exterior," they say).
And why the strange fetus-like looks? They explain that they sought a minimum design that could be recognized as male or female, old or young, and that users would use their imagination to make the robot more personal.
Any early adopters? Are you ready to "Elfoid" your friends?
Below, a video and more images:
Images: Osaka University and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International
Erico Guizzo is the Director of Digital Innovation at IEEE Spectrum, and cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.