Japan Introduces Life-Size Robot Phone

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Mere telephone calls aren't good enough? Video calls don't push the envelope far enough? Japanese researchers may have just what you need: a life-size robot that speaks, moves, and blinks your phone calls at you.

Called the Telenoid R1, the robot has sensors to transmit the movements and sounds of your caller and motors that can replicate them locally.

The robot will allow "people to feel as if an acquaintance in the distance is next to you," according to its developers, Osaka University and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute.

The man behind the project, Hiroshio Ishiguro of Osaka University, is famous for creating such androids for an area of robotics research called telepresence, or transmitting a person's presence to a remote location. He has already made a robot replica of himself, as well as a smiling female called the Geminoid F.

An article in IEEE Spectrum magazine describes the operation of the robot, which Ishiguro expects will be used in real-life situations -- provide company to elderly people living alone, for example.

A controller sits at a computer with a webcam and specially developed software, wrote the magazine. The computer captures voice and tracks the operator's face and head movements; the voice and some of those movements are then 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 eerie, but they explain that "once we communicate with others by using the Telenoid, we can adapt to it."

The Telenoid R1 uses motors as actuators, and there are only nine in its body. Ishiguro's previous androids used pneumatic actuators; the Geminoid HI-1 had 50 of them, and the Geminoid F had 12. The Telenoid's smaller and simpler body helped reduce development and production costs.

The robot has been made to look similar to a human but without hair, to appear "as both male and female, as both old and young," the developers said.

The robot is expect to sell for about $40,000 for research purposes and about $8,000 for general purposes, and will be made available in Japan later this year.