Toshiba touts interactive robots
Apri Sharp Ear can understand and talk with up to six people at once
IDG News Service - Toshiba Corp. has developed two technologies that will enable robots to interact with several people at once as well as follow them around without bumping into them. The company wants to commercialize robots combining the technologies in about five to six years, it said at a news conference today.
Toshiba demonstrated the technologies with two robots that move on wheels. Apri Sharp Ear, the first robot shown, is ball-shaped, stands 17 in. high and weighs 22 lb. It was able to distinguish voices and commands from three people standing around it, talking back and performing tasks such as turning on a TV.
The second, ApriAttenda, is 3 ft. tall and weighs 66 lb. It has an ultrasonic sensor and can follow a walking person. It was able to stop itself when the demonstrator halted.
Apri Sharp Ear has six microphones planted around its body that use voice signal processing technology to understand up to six people talking to it simultaneously, said Nobuto Matsuhira, chief research scientist at Toshiba's Human Centric Laboratory. The lab is part of the company's Corporate Research and Development Center in Kawasaki, near Tokyo.
ApriAttenda uses a Toshiba-developed image processing algorithm to identify people registered in its database from the color and texture of their clothes at distances of up to 15 ft., while differentiating a person from other moving and stationary objects, Matsuhira said. The robot can also avoid obstacles and search out and find a person if he moves out of sight or too far away to recognize. If that fails, it can call to the person, Matsuhira said.
Those abilities are important if robots are to move beyond entertainment functions and cope with real-life situations, such as helping people go shopping, said Mutsuhiro Arinobu, corporate vice president and director of the company's Corporate Research and Development Center.
ApriAttenda can follow a person around.
One example is the PaPeRo robot by NEC Corp., which can recognize different people and communicate with them. In a demonstration in March, PaPeRo was able to differentiate voice commands from background noise, interact with people by recognizing gestures and individuals in crowds, and read handwriting. NEC hopes to commercialize the robot in a year or two, it said.
Toshiba hasn't yet demonstrated robots with the ability to recognize voice commands through background noise, but the company is developing this technology, according to Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for the company. With a little more development, the company could integrate functionsof the two latest models into a single robot, she said.
The Toshiba robots build on basic face-recognition, voice-synthesis and obstacle-avoidance technologies that the company demonstrated with an earlier Apri prototype in March 2003, Matsuhira said.
Apri Sharp Ears failed to respond to several of its commands, and people attending the event were asked not to use flash when taking pictures and to switch off their wireless LANs when the robots were performing, so as not to confuse the robots' sensors.
"The demonstrations are very challenging and these are prototypes ... but we want to start selling robots as soon as possible," Matsuhira said.
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