Mask Robot Wears Many Human Faces
Dr. Takaaki Kuratate and his robot communication interface Mask-Bot.
CREDIT: Uli Benz / Technical University of Munich
Most robots that have human faces still have the appeal of a dead-eyed zombie or doll creepily brought to life with twitching facial features and jerky mouth movements. A new robot may prove more successful by projecting any number of realistic human expressions onto its smooth, featureless face.
The so-called "Mask-bot," created by German and Japanese researchers, can use any 2-D photo of a human face to create a lively 3-D face of its own capable of acting happy or sad, quiet or loud. It can also become a human avatar by projecting real-time video of a person's face onto itself during teleconferences, or perhaps helping distant family or friends connect more intimately.
"Mask-bot will influence the way in which we humans communicate with robots in the future," said Gordon Cheng, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Cognitive Systems at Technical University Munich in Germany.
Mask-bot doesn't quite escape the "uncanny valley" feeling caused by faces that only look partially human. Still, projecting realistic faces may prove much easier compared with creating a fully robotic face with all the appropriate motors to simulate different facial expressions.
Such a robot builds on a concept pioneered by Walt Disney, who created exhibits in his "Haunted Mansion" ride by projecting the scary faces of actors onto featureless busts from the front. By contrast, Mask-bot researchers installed a small, strong projector inside the robot head that beams a human face onto the back of the mask.
The most immediate use of Mask-bot could arise during video conferences, where the device could be used as an alternative to having people watch one another on screens. Mask-bot can even create its own face based on computer algorithms that select the best facial expressions from real human faces recorded through motion capture.
"With Mask-bot, however, you can create a realistic replica of a person that actually sits and speaks with you at the conference table," said Takaaki Kuratate, an engineer at Technical University Munich. "You can use a generic mask for male and female, or you can provide a custom-made mask for each person."
The robot can already speak anything typed by a keyboard in English and Japanese, with German next on the list. Emotion software helps lend the expression and voice nuances to indicate being happy, sad or angry.
But making Mask-bot the face for a semi-intelligent robot remains tricky, because it cannot yet interact normally through human conversation. It remains limited to certain responses based on fixed programming.
That has not stopped the German-Japanese team from pushing ahead. It plans to replace the existing $4,151 (3,000 euro) robot with a more mobile robot costing just $549 (400 euro). The next-generation robot would have a mask, projector and computer control system all in one package.
"These systems could soon be used as companions for older people who spend a lot of time on their own," Kuratate said.