Attention all pirates of the future, I've just found the 21st century version of the squawking parrot sidekick. Developed at the Anzai-Mai Lab at Keio University in Japan, Teroos is a shoulder-mounted robot that you can wear on the go. Embedded with a camera, microphone, and speakers, Teroos allows a friend to have a virtual presence sitting a few inches from your head. They simply log into the robot via Skype. With six degrees of motion in its head, Teroos is capable of looking around independently of the human it's riding but its audio is designed to speak almost exclusively to its carrier. With Teroos, your friend can ride on your shoulder, see what you see, and advise you on whatever you're doing - from shopping to science. Check out the robot during its recent appearance at Interaction 2011 in the video below. Carrying a telerobotic head around on your shoulder may sound creepy in the abstract, but watching it in action makes me really want one. I'm sure the robo-philic pirates among you will agree.
The Anzai-Mai Lab has done some very interesting things with Teroos as a robot. While it doesn't have a screen to show the face of its user, the robot can display several different predetermined expressions. Sort of like the animatronic version of emoticons. Teroos sits far enough forward on its mount and has enough flexbility in its neck, to look directly at its human carrier. That means the person 'riding' in Teroos could just as easily chat with you as it does look around the room. Taken together, these robotic flourishes gives the impression that the robot really is a character riding around beside you. Which is a pretty darn cool fashion accessory to carry around a tech conference, as you'll see:
We've seen more and more telerobots popping up these days. That may be a sign that they are the next logical step forward in telepresence, but with each new bot I'm inclined to question what we're really buying here. The actual telecommunication part of Teroos is relatively simple: it connects to a smart phone via Bluetooth and then interacts with its remote user via Skype. That's fairly basic, and almost anyone can have the same quality of video conferencing on their smart phones. With the right Bluetooth accessories (camera headset, etc) you could replicate the mobility and video calling of Teroos without the robot.
Why even develop telerobotics then? As we've discussed before, there are a few things that robots add to telepresence. Mainly, the 'presence' part. Have a person telecommute in via a robot long enough, and people start to think of the robot as that person (or as an extension of them). Not something you see with a webcam, and that effect alone is something that is worth exploring. Another advantage of telerobotics is that systems outfitted with limbs or other forms of body language seem to rate higher with those interacting with them, and help people on each end of the conversation communicate better. If these are two of the big selling points about telerobotics, I'm not sure we can credit Teroos with having enough of either. Does it have enough of a separate identity when it has to ride on a human? Are the facial expressions and head movements enough to convey body language?
Probably a 'no' on both accounts. Yet maybe I'm looking at Teroos too critically. It doesn't have to be the most advantageous telerobot ever made to be interesting. Honestly, this thing is simply really cool. It's a robot sidekick that you wear and that allows your friends to ride along with you wherever you go. I want one. I know that it doesn't have a lot to offer beyond other telerobots I've seen and I still want one. Even if it's only a novelty in its field, Teroos at least shows us that there is more diversity in telepresence forms than we may have originally thought. I certainly wouldn't mind if wearable robots caught on. At the very least it'd give us a chance to visit that whole angel and devil sitting on your shoulder routine. Hmm... I wonder if a robot would tell you choose good or evil...or awesome?