The faces of kids and adults light up the first time they see Sony Corp.'s Aibo or Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Asimo robots as the robots' demeanor and life-like movements bring a smile to almost every face. But wait a second. Cute as they are, whatever happened to The Jetson's ideal of an army of robots to do our cleaning, water our plants and wash our car?
To date, the cost of developing and building robots has meant that, around the home at least, they are much more suited to entertaining than doing the types of complex work that you or I do everyday, but that may be changing. Researchers at several companies in Japan are working on robots that perform simple tasks and can help around the home.
One such project has been going on for just over five years at NEC Corp.'s Central Research Laboratory here in the leafy Tokyo suburbs.
Everything started when a group of researchers studying a diverse range of applications, such as speech recognition and optical sensing, realized they could put all of this together to build a robot, said Yoshihiro Fujita, senior manager at the lab's Personal Robot Center. The first product of the project was the R100, which was unveiled in August 1999. Almost two years later, in March 2001, a smaller, more intelligent successor called PaPeRo was announced.
PaPeRo stands 38 centimeters high and has a round body, 25 centimeters in diameter.
"It is basically a notebook computer with some sensors, a case and a few motors for movement," said Fujita. The researchers decided to use this simple design because they are more interested in the human-computer interface technology than cracking challenges of mechanical technology to make the device look more like a person or pet.
A pair of CCD (charge coupled device) cameras act as eyes for PaPeRo. It is through these that the robot senses its surroundings, the location of major obstacles and also recognizes up to 10 people. Four microphones act as its ears, three for sound direction detection and one for voice recognition. The major interface to PaPeRo is through speech and it can recognize up to 650 phrases.
Through a combination of these functions, things start to get interesting. During a demonstration, the robot recognized Fujita and was able to carry out some small talk before being ordered to take a message. The function is something like an audio mail and PaPeRo will store it until he meets the person it was intended for, and then play the message back.
Its talents don't stop there.
"PaPeRo, switch on the TV," Fujitsu said and a couple of seconds later a TV in the room came to life. "NHK," Fujita said, mentioning the name of Tokyo's channel 1, and PaPeRo switched the TV to the channel using an infrared controller buried inside its body. "TBS," and the TV switched to channel 6, "Fuji," and PaPeRo switched the TV to channel 8, and so it went.
Now, none of this is rocket science and wouldn't drive most people to rush out and buy one (PaPeRo is a research project only and so not for sale at present anyway) but Fujita offered the functions as a taste of things to come. They are also essential elements to NEC's goal in producing a robot "to partner (with) people in their homes with the underlying aim of improving (the) human-machine interface through introducing robots into our everyday lives."
The robots are already with some 70 families to take part in real world tests and the results of those trials are providing NEC with much needed feedback.
"In the laboratory lighting is very good and engineers know the limitations of the robots so we also look at it straight in the face," said Fujita. "At home, there is limited lighting so sometimes half the face is light and half is dark." This, or people looking at PaPeRo from an angle, makes facial recognition a much harder job and so is a much better test of the software.
The trials have also given the researchers a chance to see how PaPeRo interacts with pets.
"At first, dogs are very wary and they stay at a distance but after a while we find the dogs ignore it," he said. For its part, PaPeRo treats pets as nothing more than moving obstacles.
But despite the trials and constant improvements to software, Fujita fears his work could never end.
"I think the project is impossible to complete. People always compare it to a human but its ability is very different. We can keep improving its ability again and again."
NEC isn't the only company looking to employ high technology to perform mundane tasks. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known by its Panasonic brand name, recently unveiled an automatic vacuum cleaner. Packed with sensors for avoiding obstacles, adjusting the power depending on the amount of dirt to be cleaned and also avoiding drops such as those on stairs, the cleaner will run unattended for 55 minutes on one charge. Trials of the device in real Japanese homes are currently underway and the company plans to review the results before deciding on a schedule for commercialization.
Detailed information on PaPeRo can be found on the Internet at: http://www.incx.nec.co.jp/robot/.