Why Building Social Robots is Much Harder Than You Think

Apr 19, 2017 | 2289 Views

Social robots stole the show at CES in Vegas this year. Dozens of offerings were on display, ranging from robots that tutor you in physics (Einstein), queue up your favorite recipes (Mykie), and even help autistic children socialize (Leka).

Unlike your moody human friends, these robots promise to be available day and night, ever accommodating, and practically omniscient through their persistent connection to the internet and your personal data. Who wouldn't want a reliable companion like that?

Leading social robotics companies like Anki and Jibo have raised $157.5 million and $70.4 million to date from investors, respectively, while numerous old and new robotics companies like Hanson, Mayfield, and Blue Frog are introducing companion robots for the home. Even established home electronics companies like LG and Bosch are jumping into the game with offerings like Hub and Mykie.

Despite all the investment interest, starting a social robotics company is no "get rich quick" scheme. While the promise of personal robotics is real, the challenges are equally so. We asked the best entrepreneurs in the space to weigh in on why crafting the perfect robot companion is much harder than you think.

The Uncanny Valley is Hard to Avoid

The concept of "uncanny valley" was first identified in 1970 by Japanese robotics professor Mashiro Mori, who noticed that humanoid figures that were almost human, but just a bit off, are perceived by us as creepy and revolting. Just think of the zombies you see in scary movies and video games. They're terrifying because they're like us, but not fully "alive."

To avoid the negative emotions of the uncanny valley, a designer must either build a robot so human-like as to be virtually indistinguishable from actual humans, or opt for a more abstract, stylized design so a robot elicits positive emotions the same way a pet or cartoon character does.

Franck de Visme, co-founder of Blue Frog Robotics, cites that a core design challenge for personal robots is "people must accept it into their homes, so the robot cannot be too high." A commercial humanoid robot like Softbank's Pepper, which is often used to replace automated kiosks in retail stores, is simply too large for the home. In designing Buddy, Blue Frog's companion robot, the team tested numerous sizes and interaction styles to find people's preferred fit.

Anki's President and Co-Founder Hanns Tappeiner confirms that size is critical. Early prototypes of their hit robot toy Cozmo were up to 4 times larger than the released model. In testing, people stopped perceiving the larger prototypes as cute. "Being able to hold the robot in one hand easily was very important," remembers Tappeiner.

Uncanny valleys don't just apply to external aesthetics, but also functionality. When I first brought home my Amazon Echo, I felt warm fuzzy feelings towards Alexa. These positive emotions quickly reversed to feelings of annoyance and impatience when I realized she didn't understand 99% of my commands and that most Alexa Skills suck. Now my Echo has been relegated to acting as a $170 light switch.

If you can get upset with a device that looks like Darth Vader's Pringles can, imagine how much higher your expectations will be for a device with human trappings. Managing expectations and effectively communicating the functional boundaries of a social robot are challenges every company in the space faces.

"When Apple advertised Siri, consumers had no idea what Siri could or couldn't do," cautions Steve Chambers, CEO of Jibo. "People need to understand Jibo's edges. We try to make sure they don't set expectations too high by making Jibo seem and sound like a 9 year old boy." The company hired the sound designer behind R2D2 to create a "whole library of audiophonic brand" that give Jibo curious, child-like expressions. Read More...

Source: Topbots