In Japan, clockwork automata (karakuri ningyō) emerged in the 17th century, and were mainly sold to wealthy or important people who used them to impress guests. These little mechanical dolls have an illustrious history, but like their Western counterparts they largely went out of fashion by the 20th century. Now, a modern version of these automata that mixes popular anime-style vinyl dolls and hobby robotics is on its way thanks to Danny Choo of Culture Japan.
The Smart Doll is an interactive 60 cm (23.6 in) tall vinyl doll with a robotic endoskeleton called an "AeonFrame" engineered to fit inside of its slender body. The AeonFrame contains 24 incredibly small servo motors and control boards, as well as sensors for touch, ultrasound, vision, sound, and position. These allow the doll to tilt its head, move its arms, and shift its torso all on its own or on demand. Just don't expect it to smile or wink at you like Hanson Robotics' Robokind.
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Cramming all of the necessary electronics inside such a slim form presents a major challenge. In 2003 researchers at Samsung developed an unrelated robotic doll called April that was designed as a kind of social experiment. April was about the same size, but its servos were too big to fit inside its body. The solution was to run wires through the limbs that connected to an external servo hub hidden beneath the robot.
Micro servo motors ensure that Smart Doll will maintain its figure, but they're not without some drawbacks. "While the whole frame can be moved without an electric current, we recommend that you pose her with the power on and use the controls on your Bluetooth paired Android smart phone instead," suggests Choo. Tiny components like those in the AeonFrame are delicate, and I foresee many broken joints in the future as the dolls are bumped or fall over.
Micro servos are stripped of their plastic casings right down to the gears in order to fit inside the Smart Doll's vinyl body
Another issue is that the low torque in the leg servos prevents Smart Doll from walking. It falls short of some hobby projects like the Dancing Dolls, which have thick legs to accommodate powerful servos, enabling them to perform some relatively fancy footwork. However, like the vinyl dolls it is based on the Smart Doll can be posed in a standing position.
Besides posing for you, the Smart Doll will repeat canned lines and notify you of Twitter and Facebook messages, and you'll be able to purchase downloadable content like new phrases and motions. Besides the Mirai doll seen in the photos, the company will also sell the AeonFrame on its own for those who want to make their own doll or simply display it as-is.
Pricing hasn't be finalized, but I expect it's for serious doll collectors only. If robots are more your thing, you could opt for the EMA doll (originally released in 2008) or wait for Takara Tomy's self-transforming Transformer toy, both of which are likely to be considerably cheaper.
Watch the Smart Doll come to life in the video below.