Image: Osaka University and ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories
Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has just unveiled a new teleoperated android: a strange robotic creature called the Telenoid R1.
Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, is famous for creating humanlike androids designed to "transmit the presence" of people to a distant place. His previous remote controlled androids include a robot replica of himself that he named Geminoid HI-1 and a smiling female android called the Geminoid F.
But the new Telenoid R1 robot is quite different. The previous androids had lifelike appearances, every detail trying to reproduce the features of a real person. The Telenoid has a minimalistic design. The size of small child, it has a soft torso with a bald head, a doll-like face, and stumps in place of limbs. It looks like an overgrown fetus.
Ishiguro and his collaborators say the idea was to create a teleoperated robot that could appear male or female, old or young, and that could be easily transported. The new design pushes the envelope of human-robot interaction, and Ishiguro is certainly not afraid of exploring the depths of the uncanny valley.
The researchers, who demonstrated the robot today at a press conference in Osaka, hope it will be used as a new communication device, with applications in remote work, remote education, and elderly care. The goal of the project, a collaboration between Osaka University and Japan's Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, known as ATR, is to investigate the essential elements for representing and transmitting humanlike presence.
Here's how the system works: An operator sits at a computer with a webcam and special teleoperation software developed by ATR. The computer captures voice and tracks the operator's face and head movements. The voice and some movements are transmitted to the Telenoid. The operator can also push buttons to activate other behaviors.
Even its creators admit the Telenoid R1, which will be demonstrated at this year's Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, is a bit, uh, eerie:
The unique appearance may be eery when we first see it. However, once we communicate with others by using the telenoid, we can adapt to it. If a friend speaks from the telenoid, we can imagine the friend’s face on the telenoid’s face. If we embrace it, we have the feeling, that we embrace the friend.
The Telenoid R1 uses dc motors as actuators, and there are only nine in its body. Ishiguro's previous androids use pneumatic actuators; the Geminoid HI-1 has 50 actuators, and the Geminoid F has 12. The Telenoid's smaller and simpler body helped reduce development and production costs. A research version of the robot will cost about US $35,000, and a commercial version about $8,000. They will be available later this year, distributed by Eager Co. of Japan.
UPDATED: Added price and availability.
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All images courtesy of Osaka University and ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories
Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.