Hanson Robotics’ RoboKind – Small Bots With Human Faces

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Robokind4As a child who watched way too many 80s horror movies, I grew up fearing any small creature with an expressive face. Chucky, Gremlins, those creepy dolls from Puppet Master – these are not the characters to engender trust from humanity. RoboKind, however, are just that. The latest creations from robotics genius David Hanson and his team, RoboKind are two foot tall bots with faces molded in ‘frubber’ – a material that gives them the flexibility to make a million different expressions. Now on sale for $14,750 or less, RoboKind are Hanson Robotics’ entrance into a new market of small scale academic research, robot soccer competitions, entertainment, and much more. Watch RoboKind in action in the video below, followed by some great pics of the new bots. Known for creating some of them most realistic robot faces in the world, Hanson is finally putting his talent within reach of the majority of institutions. Program them, study them, love them – RoboKind are ready to interact with humanity.

The following sales pitch form Hanson Robotics gives you a great overview of RoboKind. Small bodies with 25 degrees of freedom and complex faces with incredible expressions. There are also two HD cameras (in the eyes), .WAV playback compatibility (for the voice), and an API. Check it out:

To put RoboKind in perspective, you have to understand the market that Hanson is entering. Trouble is, there aren’t many robots out there with similar approaches. If you want a robot of the same size that focuses on movement the closest thing is probably Nao. From Aldebaran, Nao is a very popular platform for the RoboCup soccer competition as well as university level research. It retails for around $16k, but it runs a very different set of software (including open code on ROS) and has a developer/researcher community already in place. Nao doesn’t have a changing face – so a comparable RoboKind model would be just $11,500. RoboKind bots would be cheaper, certainly, perhaps also a better choice overall, but that remains to be seen.

If instead of bodies we focus on faces we’re left without a sound comparison. No one makes faces like Hanson Robotics. Sure, there are other remarkably life-like robots out there – the Geminoids for example – but Hanson’s frubber faces have a different feel to them. Less hyper-realism, more character , perhaps? Hard to say. In any case, those robots are all human-sized. On the small scale RoboKind stands alone. Which means they may be a breakthrough tool for psychology research. There have been some remarkable human-robot interaction experiments done with expressive bots, but most have been conducted using unique (or at least very limited) models of bots. RoboKind could ramp up these kind of studies to a much larger scale. At $15k or less, these bots are well within the budget of most university labs, and could even be affordable to some high-school programs. That opens up a lot of really great research opportunities. As you saw in the video, Hanson has already been working with scientists at the University of Texas Arlington (near the Hanson HQ).

Of course, no matter how exciting robot soccer and research may be, they simply cannot compare to the raw visceral reaction I get just from seeing RoboKind in action. These bots are so damn cool! They are the antithesis of all those 80s horror movies, and better still, they’re real. It blows my mind that such technology is here and ready for anyone to buy.

I’m also very satisfied with how Hanson Robotics is fulfilling its vision. When I talked to David Hanson at the Singularity Summit last year, he emphasized how important characters would be in getting humans to accept robots. From his famous Einstein Hubo robot, to his Phillip K Dick replicant, to Zeno (the first member of RoboKind), Hanson has always focused on creating robots with whom you want to empathize. They can’t move as fluidly as humans can and they’re expressions aren’t quite human-level yet, but somehow they don’t fall into the Uncanny Valley. I think that’s because each represents a story as much as a physical object with software. In the long run I don’t know if this kind of character-driven robotics will be the definitive solution to human-robot interaction, but the mass production of RoboKind is a great step towards determining if it is. Kudos to Hanson Robotics for accomplishing this part of their master plan.

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The four faces of RoboKind. From Top to Bottom: Zeno, Einstein, Alice, and Geo.

 

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The many faces of Zeno. While not quite human-level, Hanson faces can create a very wide variety of expressions that could make them invaluable in psychological research.

 

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See, if this were an 80s horror movie, you'd be scared for that girl. But because it's Hanson, you know that Zeno is just listening to her read....and maybe giving her advice about boys.

 

[image and video credits: Hanson Robotics]
[source: RoboKind]