March 01, 2011, 3:19 PM — It sings, acts and even does impersonations. Just don't ask this robot to vacuum the floor. One of the stars of Cebit 2011 is RoboThespian, an entertainment robot from the U.K.
The robot, which drew crowds and a steady procession of TV cameras on Tuesday, grew out of a 2005 project to construct robotic actors. The development team soon found people wanted to interact with the robot, so it spent the next two years adding interaction. It's also been given a more lifelike form of movement. (Watch the robot in action.)
"He's designed as a communications tool," said Will Jackson, director of Engineered Arts. "It's a way of interfacing to your data in a much more humanly accessible way."
The company, based in the small English town of Penryn in Cornwall, has already installed 20 of the robots in science centers around the world. They can be found in the U.K.'s ThinkTank, Germany's Phaeno, Questcon in Australia and Macau Science Center. NASA has just taken one for the Kennedy Space Center.
"It's designed in a human form. It very closely matches the human body proportions and it's able to move fast and in a fluid way like a person, which is important. If you want to communicate with people, you have to move like a person."
The robot on show at Cebit, called Reginald, was doing more than just communicating on Tuesday. It was making the Cebit crowd laugh with a steady stream of songs and impersonations. It managed a tuneful "Singing in the Rain"; did a mean "C3PO" from Star Wars, complete with realistic body movements; and excelled with a minutelong sequence from the movie "RoboCop." (See the "Singing in the Rain," C3PO and RoboCop performances in video on YouTube.)
Looking ahead, the company's next line of development is getting the robots around the world to communicate.
"One of the things we're working on is a collective intelligence for all of the installed robots that we have," said Jackson. A robot in one place might attempt to interact with visitors and fish for information. Any information gathered will go into a central database and becomes a general shared knowledge of all the RoboThespians, he said.
"He'll say 'Tell me something I don't know' and you say 'Well Reginald, elephants are pink.' He will then remember that, and you could go to any other robot in the world and ask ... about elephants and he would go 'elephants are pink."
Engineered Arts sells or rents the robot. Prices begin at £36,500 (US$59,000).