Tue, Aug 26, 2014 - Page 12 News List

RoboThespian, the first commercial robot that behaves like a person

British company Engineered Arts’ creation can hold eye contact with you, perform ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and even guess your age

By Shane Hickey  /  The Guardian

Humanoid robot of British company RoboThespian “blushes” during the opening ceremony of the Hanover technology fair CeBIT on March 9.

Photo: Reuters

You don’t have to be paranoid to think there are eyes following you around the Cornwall warehouse that is home to Engineered Arts.

Indeed, if you were not being watched, there would be something wrong, as those eyes belong to robots made by the British company that has become an industry leader by creating humanoid, commercially available robots that can hold eye contact with you, perform Singin’ in the Rain and guess your age — all at the same time.

Engineers are now working on making them walk, hop and jump.

Just inside the front door of the Penryn factory is a line of RoboThespians, human-sized rigid robots whose arms move while the little screens that represent their eyes follow the person in front while telling jokes in one of 30 languages.

Up to 20 of the machines, priced at between £50,000 and £55,000 (NT$2.49 million and NT$2.73 million), are sold every year to museums, universities and companies to communicate and entertain at exhibitions, trade shows and events. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Israel’s National Museum of Science, Technology & Space are among the institutions that have them.

“It was ‘make an automated presenter,’” said Will Jackson, founder of Engineered Arts. “That was the mission. It was to make something that could stand in a spot all day, every day, and tell the people things but do it in an entertaining way and use gestures.”

NEVER GETS NERVOUS

With a background in special effects, Jackson was working on exhibitions for central London’s Science Museum in the 1990s when he came on the need for a machine that could explain concepts and ideas to people repetitively in an entertaining fashion and not be nervous when talking to a group of people.

“It is really tedious for someone to stand in a space and repeat the same information all day every day,” he said. “It was ripe for automation.”

The RoboThespian’s movements can be controlled by a tablet. The robot can guess the mood and age of people (although years frequently appear to be shaved off) and blow kisses in the air before breaking into song. It is, said Jackson, the first full-sized humanoid commercially available robot — orders can usually be ready to ship within two weeks.

“It is making machines that can have the properties of people. This is key for making a performing robot. It has huge industrial applications as well because if you can make a machine which is safe around people and it is able to behave like a person, you can then do collaborative tasks, you can start solving all kinds of other problems,” he said.

The next stage of development will see the creation of Byrun, a 30kg machine about 170cm tall that will be able to walk, hop and jump. A working prototype is expected in a year, said Jackson, with five of his 14 employees focusing on creating a “strong, lightweight, but bouncy and compliant” robot.

Under the plans for the androgynous Byrun, the robot’s fingers will be sensitive to pressure and temperature. The proportions and locations of the joints are designed to make it as close to the human form as possible. Jackson expects it to cost between £350,000 and £400,000 (NT$17.40 million and NT$19.88 million) when it comes to market and hopes to sell about 10 a year for research and development.

FUTURE OF ROBOTICS

Nine years after setting up the company, which Jackson and his wife own, he said his “life goal” was making a machine that performed like a person. However, his creations would never be sold to any military body, he said.

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