Imagine talking to your friends through a robotic copy of Casper the Friendly Ghost. That's what I imagine it must be like to use Telenoid R1, the new telepresence robot developed by Osaka University and ATR. The diminutive robot is just 80 cm long (~31 inches), ghost-white, and has stubby limbs that make it look exactly like a cartoon ghost. Creepy yes, but also a little adorable. It's designed to be a minimalist human form, something that could be recognized as either male or female, young or old (alive or dead?). Telenoid is an advanced video conferencing tool. A person in front of a webcam will have their voice and head movements recorded and sent over the internet to the robot through WiFi connection. You, on the receiving end miles away, talk to the Telenoid robot as if it was your friend. Your undead, über-creepy friend. Debuted in August, the Telenoid is set to go on sale this month, distributed by Eager Co. Ltd. The advanced version will retail for ¥ 3 million (~$35,000 USD) and a cheaper model will sell for ¥ 700k (~$8000 USD). Check out the Telenoid as it awes/scares crowds at Ars Electronica 2010 in the first video below, followed by two more technical demoes of how it works. There's something about this baby-ghost telerobot that I find strangely endearing.
The Telenoid is the latest in humanoid robots from the legendary Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro. He's the mind behind other (equally creepy) telepresence robots like the Geminoid F we've reviewed before. With the Telenoid, Ishiguro really seems to be aiming to create a universal stand-in for humanity. Elders can talk with their grandchildren on the other side of the world while cradling the Telenoid's soft silicone body. Students can receive English lessons under the Telenoid's unblinking eyes. Each scenario works just as well as the other, though I'm not sure how comfortable I would be with either one. Ishiguro discusses the Telenoind at Ars Electronica in the first video below. Make sure to catch a child's response to the bot around 1:22 - I think I'd have the same reaction:
Here are two more videos demonstrating the Telenoid that give a better idea of how it might actually be used. Obviously the webcam user wouldn't normally be in the same room (or city) as the person with the robot, but you get the idea. Apologies that the videos are only available in Japanese.
Ishiguro has stripped out many of the actuators from his earlier humanoid telerobots, leaving less than a dozen to power the Telenoid's eye, head, and limb movements. This makes the robot relatively cheaper (the Geminoid F was ¥10 million or ~$100,000 USD), and the low-end version would be on par with mobile telerobots we've seen like Anybots' QB or Robodynamics' TiLR. Of course, Telenoid doesn't move on its own, and its office applications would be limited. That's ok. As we've learned from Robodynamics' Fred Nikoghar, the market for telerobots is going to be very diverse.
In that telepresence ecosystem, Telenoid seems to be shooting for a niche that focuses on the tactile and emotional connections we can make through robots. It's a great idea, but I'm not sure how well the ghostly Telenoid really works for that purpose. I am glad it has proto-limbs, as hand gestures are a vital part of communication and we've seen how they can enhance telerobotics.
I go back and forth between thinking the Telenoid is ingeniously adaptable and utterly unapproachable. Yes it could stand in for anybody, but it also moves like it's demonically possessed. There are times when it bends its neck to wince-inducing degrees. Still, it's not the creepiest baby robot I've ever seen, and there's something about being able to hold the little 5 kg (11 lbs) baby bot that I'm sure many will find appealing. Especially when the voice of a loved one is coming out of its undulating mouth. ...You know what? No, that image just did it for me. Telenoid is firmly in the creep zone. The only thing that's going to disturb me more than a ghost telerobot is a ghost telerobot that has the voice of my dad on a webcam. Back to the drawing board Ishiguro. Can't wait to see what crazy path you cut through the Uncanny Valley next.