If you were talking to someone and they blatantly shifted their attention to something else, chances are you'd have something to say about it. Most interactive robots, however, wouldn't even notice. That's why scientists at Japan's Toyohashi University of Technology have developed Talking-Ally, a robot that knows when it's being ignored.

Talking-Ally tracks the gaze of humans with which it's conversing, and notices if they start staring at something other than it. It then does things such as nodding its head to catch their eye or turning its head to see what they're looking at, plus it delivers an "appropriate utterance" (presumably something like "Yoo-hoo, I'm over here") to regain their attention.

In lab tests, volunteers carried out conversations with Talking-Ally while distracting sports programs played on a TV in the background. When they watched the sports for too long, the robot was successfully able to re-engage them.

Although it currently chooses gestures and utterances from a set at random, the scientists are working on getting it to perform situation-specific behaviours based on subtle cues observed in its listener.

Ultimately, it is hoped that the research will lead to a more natural type of interaction between people and robots.