Zeno Could Be Next Robot Boy Wonder
- Source: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2178986,00.asp
Zeno Could Be Next Robot Boy Wonder
Hanson Robotics' latest creation is a 17-inch, 4.5-pound robot boy that can
walk, talk, express emotions, and make eye contact.
By Lance Ulanoff <http://www.pcmag.com/author_bio/0,1908,a=204,00.asp>
David Hanson-the genius inventor, father of
<http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2036407,00.asp> "Frubber" life-like
robotic skin, and the man who brought us a robotic
<http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2016599,00.asp> Albert Einstein
head-today introduced a prototype of what could become the next must-have
You can visit the Zeno web site www.zenosworld.com (editor's note: the
site's URL isn't live yet, but should be available in time for Wired's
NextFest) to see the first videos of Hanson's latest creation: a
17-inch-tall, 4.5-pound humanoid robot boy named Zeno. The prototype, which
will have a formal unveiling at Wired Nextfest in California next week, is
described as an intelligent "conversational robot" and will ultimately be
part of Hanson's "Robokind" line of personal, interactive bots. Zeno is
still at least two years from commercial availability, but even at this
early stage, the child-like robot apparently has some impressive features.
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Much like Hanson's partnership with Hubo robotic to build the walking,
talking Einstein robot, Hanson's team designed and built Zeno's head and
commissioned Robo-Garage impresario Tomotaka Takahashi
<http://www.robo-garage.com/english/index.html> to build the body, which is
modeled after the popular Japanese anime Astroboy. The wireless-controlled
prototype can walk, talk, and express emotions.
Zeno's face is covered in Frubber, but Hanson explained it's a more
"sophisticated version" than what's found on "Einstein," and is more durable
and toy like. Unlike Einstein's face, there aren't any pores or wrinkles;
Zeno is, ultimately, a cartoon character with a smooth, almost doll-like
visage. Underneath the flexible skin are 12 motors (it has 18 more in its
body) that provide Zeno with a wide range of expressions. Behind one of its
large eyes is a camera that the robot uses to recognize faces. "[Zeno]
recognizes faces better than people do, according to the latest facial
recognition tests," said Hanson.
Zeno's voice is generated via text-to-speech both dynamically and from
prescript information. In fact, Zeno also tells stories and will recount
adventures with its friends in the year 2027. While Zeno may eventually ship
with a charging station, the current lithium-polymer prototype needs to be
plugged in every hour or so. When low on power, Zeno cries and complains
that it's tired. "So kind of an infant-like character. It's where robots are
now: they're kind of helpless and it's natural that they should ask for our
help," explained Hanson.
Where Zeno diverges from the upcoming Ugobe Pleo, Sony's now discontinued
AIBO and even Wow Wee robots, is that much of Zeno's intelligence will
reside outside its body. The current prototype is hooked up two PCs, a Linux
and a Windows XP box. One runs the animation software and the other Zeno's
character engine. The final version will use one network-attached Windows PC
and will connect to Zeno via 802.11g WiFi.
It's also the first robot application of Academy Award-winning Massive
Software <http://www.massivesoftware.com> , a product that's been used to
animate virtual characters in the Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and King Kong
films. Hanson said Zeno uses the software like a "physical brain. It
controls body motion and reflexes of the robot and gives it a special
awareness." Including, apparently, the ability to keep track of your
whereabouts in a room and to turn and make eye contact when Zeno wants to
Hanson has high hopes and big ambitions for Zeno. "We're combining the best
artificial intelligence with this theater for fiction so that the way that
it's crafted the artistry makes the robot seem like it's more intelligent.
It turns robotics into an art medium." However, if the somewhat difficult
journey that the closely-watched personal robot, Ugobe Pleo
<http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2089585,00.asp> is taking to the
marketplace is any indication, two years to deliver such a potentially
sophisticated and affordable robot could be wildly optimistic. Hanson,
though, disagrees and told me that two years is achievable.
"There will be compromises. The kind of animation that we're able to deliver
in our high-end unit, we think we can get the essence of that into consumer
products.It may not have 30 servos, but if you're clever in the way you're
engineering the product, the technical compromises will be invisible to the
user, because the essence of the character will come through."
When Zeno goes on sale in a couple of years, it could cost around $200.
However, Hanson's business strategy isn't only about selling automatons to
robot geeks; The company plans on launching an interactive web site where
subscribers will be able to download new interactions, intelligence, and
stories for their Zeno robots.
When asked if Zeno could be designed to ride the similarly-sized Pleo robot
dinosaur, Hanson was enthusiastic: "That's a great idea! I think they could
be great friends."
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