While a Westworld-ian future of lifelike humanoid robots may still be a long way away, the world of robotics in 2018 is at quite a fascinating point. AI voice assistants are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and large-scale robots are getting more and more dynamically mobile. However, bringing all these disparate elements together into a single advanced social robot we are comfortable communicating with is still one of the biggest hurdles facing roboticists. Generally, the robots are either weird little android toys that resemble sci-fi pets, or their attempts at being truly lifelike drop us into the creepy chasm of the uncanny valley.
Stockholm-based startup, Furhat Robotics has been working to create the next generation of social robot. Its solution, designed to transcend the current mechanical limitations in creating a realistically lifelike humanoid interface, is to use projection technology to transfer a face onto a moveable head-shaped base.
The Furhat system incorporates the company's custom-developed conversational AI engine into a unit that holds real-time visual tracking systems. A camera tracks whomever Furhat is communicating with, allowing for the head, with three degrees of freedom, to tilt and maintain eye-contact.
Currently, three standard face masks have been developed for the system to back-project customized faces onto. Regular male or female human projected faces can be used but the launch video suggests anything is possible here, with examples ranging from animal faces to a character resembling something from Avatar.
The system seems to avoid slipping into uncanny valley territory by not trying to explicitly resemble the physical texture of a human face. Instead, it can offer an interesting simulacrum of a face that interacts in real-time with humans. This offers an interesting middle-ground between alien robot faces and clunky attempts to resemble human heads using latex and mechanical servos.
"This is the culmination of many years of dedicated research and development both internally and through working with industry and technology partners," says Furhat CEO, Samer Al Moubayed. "From its beginnings at KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) we have taken Furhat to a point where social robots are no longer a hope for the future but a reality of today."
It's unclear where we will see this technology pop up in the real-world. At this stage the company is only courting corporate or business clients, so you can't buy one to sit on your coffee table just yet. Disney, Merck, and Honda are all organizations that Furhat Robotics says are showing interest in the new interface. So this may be the next generation of weird robot you will see in the coming years at theme parks or directing orientation for new employees at giant corporations.
Take a look at the Furhat launch video below.
Source: Furhat Robotics
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