'Mask-bot' Set to Change the Face of How Humans Interact With Machines
A robot face so realistic that it can even flutter its eyelids has been hailed by its inventors as the next-step in human-robot relations.
Mask-bot, developed by engineers at the Technical University of Munich and in Japan, can also move its head a little, raise its eyebrows and talk, bringing the sort of robots seen on blockbuster I, Robot a step closer.
The realism is achieved by a projector positioned behind the mask accurately beaming a human face onto the back of a mask, producing features that can even be seen from the side.
‘Mask-bot will influence the way in which we humans communicate with robots in the future,’ predicts Professor Gordon Cheng, head of the research team.
The robot’s language skills are already such that upon hearing the word ‘rainbow’, it replies: ‘When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow.’
However, Mask-bot is not yet able to understand much of the spoken word.
It can currently only listen and make appropriate responses as part of a fixed programming sequence.
Mask-bot’s face has its origins in cinema technology first developed by Walt Disney.
‘He was a pioneer in this field back in the 1960s,’ explains researcher Dr Takaaki Kuratate. ‘He made the installations in his Haunted Mansion by projecting the faces of grimacing actors onto busts.’
Whereas Walt Disney projected images from the front, the makers of Mask-bot use on-board rear projection to ensure a seamless face-to-face interaction.
Mask-bot is also bright enough to function in daylight thanks to a particularly strong and small projector and a coating of luminous paint sprayed on the inside of the plastic mask.
‘You don't have to keep Mask-bot behind closed curtains,’ says Kuratate.
This part of the new system could soon be deployed in video conferences.
Kuratate says: ‘Usually, participants are shown on screen. With Mask-bot, however, you can create a realistic replica of a person that actually sits and speaks with you at the conference table.
'You can use a generic mask for male and female, or you can provide a custom-made mask for each person.’
The Munich researchers are already working on the next generation.
Mask-bot 2 will see the mask, projector and computer control system all contained inside a mobile robot.
‘These systems could soon be used as companions for older people who spend a lot of time on their own,’ adds Kuratate.