Robots have been here since a long time now. They are there on display in every auto show and in various other international shows. They have even been programmed to do certain chores, but there hasn’t been one that can converse with you giving expressions with its eyes. Atleast there wasn’t one until last week, when Toshiba’s R&D Center unveiled a new version in their line of prototype household robots at ROBOMEC 2012 (May 27th~29th).
Toshiba has named it “ApriPetit” and is much smaller than its predecessor, the “ApriPoco”. This small robot is just 5.9 inches (15 cms) tall and does not move like some other versions. Its only job is to be stationed at your desk or table top but it follows along to conversations by moving its slug-like body and eyes in ways that resemble proper conversation.
The robot is so small that you can easily hold it in the palm of your hand, so Toshiba is describing it as a portable robotic interface. That kind of close interaction has the side effect of facilitating better speech recognition. It can speak to you and address you in a witty manner, using a combination of speech recognition and text-to-speech software. Although the technology hasn’t been commercialized, the prototypes have found their way into a number of research labs, probably to use this technology in combination with other useful features.
This little fellow is designed primarily to help older folks with their daily chores. Its eyes are expressive and will follow the user across a room and it can ask and answer simple questions relating to health and mood.
The Apri line of robots has been used by university researchers for many experiments in the past. At various times they have toyed with adding mobility to them (even adding serving trays to carry foodstuffs), but this one has been designed as a stationary tabletop robot. It has three degrees of freedom (torso x1, head x2) allowing it to swivel and nod its head, giving it simple but endearing expressions.
Given that this is a communication robot (one possible use is in home care reminding the elderly to take their medication) and in this case, eye contact is considered very important. Answering to queries related to medication and reminding again is also a possibility to ensure compliance. The ApriPetit’s enormous eyes contain functional stereo cameras, which can find and recognize faces and determine how close they are. The previous version (ApriPoco) used a distance sensor to help determine a person’s proximity, but this has not yet been implemented in ApriPetit (perhaps due to its compact form). Other companies have also tried their hand at creating similar devices, such as NEC’s PaPeRo-mini and RayTron’s Chapit.
Toshiba is considering possible applications including supplying the robot to cloud service providers, allowing various services to be piped to the home through the robot. It’s great to see that despite some 10 years of research Toshiba hasn’t given up on their APRI, “Advanced Personal Robots with Intelligence” project. However, ApriPoco (about double the size of ApriPetit) looks much cuter with its little arms, making it look a bit like a baby turtle.
For those of you interested to buy one for your home, you need to wait. As mentioned above, the robot is part of Toshiba’s “Advanced Personal Robots with Intelligence” project and is not yet for sale.