Thomas and Janet: first kissing humanoid robots

Developed by the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the theatrical robots performed the first robot kiss during a performance of Phantom of the Opera.

2 min read

First, the rehearsal:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/mwZNxFN17jc&hl=en&fs=1& expand=1]

Then the kiss:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/O8Pk7w57uis&hl=en&fs=1& expand=1]

While at the IEEE-sponsored International Conference on Service and Interactive Robotics (SIRCon) 2009, IEEE Spectrum scored an interview with the developers of theatrical robots Thomas and Janet, who they claim are the first kissing humanoid robots.

The first kiss happened back on 27 December 2008, during a robotic performance of several scenes of Phantom of the Opera at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (known as Taiwan Tech). Chyi-Yeu Lin, a mechanical engineering professor, directed the performance in front of a packed house of about 400. The overcrowded auditorium burst out in a resounding cheer when Christine (played by Janet) and the Phantom (played by Thomas) kissed.

Lin’s team spent three years developing the autonomous robots hand-eye coordination, intrinsic self-balancing mechanisms, and other technologies. He says that most of the movements during a scene are programmed into the robot ahead of time.

However, their startup and synchronization is controlled by a network connected to a computer that acts as a server for both robots.To make the robots smooches and expression seem realistic, the team adopted several techniques, including manual molding, non-contact 3D face scanning, and 3D face morphing. The robot’s six expressions come about via servos pulling at several points in the face and mouth.

Showing the video of the play at SIRCon, Li-Chieh Cheng, a Ph.D. student at Taiwan Tech’s Intelligent Robot Lab, said such performances bridge the distance between advanced robotics technologies and the public.

“Available service robots could be very expensive and are only used at certain places. However, tickets for theater performance are affordable for everyone,” Cheng says.

But last December’s performance wasn’t perfect. “In addition to unexpected malfunction of motors, the network controlling robots were somewhat interfered with by signals from walkie-talkie used by stage staff,” Cheng says.

Taiwan Tech has some grand plans. “We aim to form a group composed of autonomous robots, which are like well-trained versatile performers. They can not only perform different plays, sing songs, or broadcast news, but also interact with real persons appropriately,” Lin told IEEE Spectrum.

Human actors aren’t the only things in the works. “We’re designing life-size robots of panda and other animals with humanities, who can be gently hugged by children without causing danger and interact with them,” Lin says.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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