We can't say we weren't warned. Last August, Japan's Eager Co. Ltd. announced that it was planning to begin sales of the Telenoid R1 telepresence robot in October. The toddler-sized ghostly-looking robot is intended to be a physical stand-in for a remote user during internet communications, mirroring that person's movements via real-time face tracking software on their computer – their voice also comes out of the device. Well, Telenoid now has a little sibling. The Elfoid P1, as it's called, was unveiled at a press conference yesterday in Japan, and is intended to serve as a combination mobile phone and mini telepresence robot.
Both Telenoid and Elfoid were designed by Osaka University robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro, in collaboration with the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR). Ishiguro has been in the headlines before, for creating very lifelike robotic doppelgangers of real people, including himself.
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His two telepresence robots' "neutral" features are intended to allow them to represent any caller, regardless of age, gender, race ... or perhaps even planetary origin.
Elfoid is essentially a pint-sized Telenoid, with a built-in 3G mobile phone. Given the limited amount of information available so far, it's not immediately clear how one would dial the thing, as it seems not to have any external controls. Ishiguro and company plan on adding microactuators to get the face and limbs moving, but the present version is immobile – a phone doll, really. Given that future versions could presumably be a writhing, wriggling, pocket-sized version of the person you're talking to, though, and the fact that their outer surface reportedly feels like skin ... well, let's just say the possibilities are disturbing.
This isn't the first time someone has thought of using a little robot/mobile phone to add a dimension of physicality to phone calls. Faculty and students at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University have already created Callo and Cally, two miniature phone-containing robots that dance, wave their arms, and display animated faces in response to the actions and instructions of callers.
But why, you may be asking, can't we just use video calling to get that human touch? It seems that many people feel awkward about being on camera while having a phone conversation with someone else. Knowing that the other person is currently seeing them as an animated sperm-like doll, however, is apparently not a problem.
There's no word yet on when or if Elfoid will be commercially available.
Photos courtesy Osaka University and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International
Via IEEE SpectrumView gallery - 7 images