In John Woo’s Face/Off, the characters played by Nicholas Cage and John Travolta changed their faces to look like each other, but SociBot-Mini takes things even further, as it can assume any face its owners want it to.
Will Jackson of Engineered Arts, a firm based out of Penryn, UK, developed SociBot-Mini with the help of his colleagues. In the past, a lot of robotics companies went for a human-like design, and even though SociBot-Mini follows that trend, this robot does it in a hair-raising manner.
As Jackson explained, “Today’s computer interfaces have moved on very little from the typewriter. We have social software and a social Internet, but we don’t have social hardware.” With that in mind, he proceeded to creating a robot with a transparent plastic face, mouth, eyes and nose contours. The human-like face is emphasized by backlighting and is furthermore enhanced by a projector.
The 60-cm tall robot features a depth-sensing camera that makes it capable of capturing and recognizing gestures. Still, SociBot-Mini does more than just predicting your mood, as it can also estimate your age.
Even SociBot-Mini‘s developer admits that “It’s as spooky as all hell. We’ve tried it with a couple of our telecommuting colleagues in meetings and when it suddenly turns and joins in the conversation as our colleague Dan, and with his face, it is quite amazing. But you get used to it quickly.”
Tony Belpaeme, a researcher at Plymouth University in the UK, pointed out that SociBot-Mini might represent a gold mine for marketing firms: “Two dimensional video conferences are quite impoverished experiences. There is still something missing and so we prefer to meet real people. So the more you can bring that 2D experience into the 3D physical space the better the interaction will flow. Having a robot in which your face is projected, carrying all the right expressive signals, will provide an immensely strong presence, even though it will seem uncanny at first.”
Jackson plans to launch a campaign on Kickstarter, and there are plenty of spooky applications he could promote for SociBot-Mini, including trick-or-treating on Halloween, bringing people back from the other side by projecting their face on this robot, and creating the impression that long-distance partners are in the same room. These are only some of the creepy uses SociBot-Mini could have, but I’m sure that people would come with more ideas if this ever hits the market.