Toshiba demonstrates prototype interactive robots

Toshiba has demonstrated a robot that can communicate with up to six people at once, and another that can follow its owner around.

Toshiba 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 sell robots that help people both in and outside the home and plans to commercialize robots combining these technologies in about five to six years, it said at a news conference Friday.

Toshiba demonstrated the technologies with two robots that move on wheels. Apri Sharp Ear, the first robot shown, is ball-shaped and stands 430 millimeters high, weighing 10 kilograms. 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 900 mm high and weighs 30 kg. It has an ultrasonic sensor and can follow a walking person. It was able to stop itself moving when the demonstrator halted.

Apri Sharp Ear has six microphones planted around its body that, combined with voice signal processing technology, enable it 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 5 meters, while differentiating that person from other moving and stationary objects, Matsuhira said.

The robot can also avoid obstacles and search out and find the person if they move out of sight or too far away to recognize. If that fails, it can call to the person, Matsuhira said.

Such abilities are important if robots are able to move beyond entertainment functions and start to cope with real-life situations in the home and in the street, for example helping people when they go shopping, said Mutsuhiro Arinobu, corporate vice president and director of the company's Corporate Research and Development Center.

Several prototype robots with similar abilities have been developed by major Japanese electronics companies to help people around the home.

One example is the PaPeRo robot by NEC, 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 functions of the two latest models into a single robot, she said.

The robots demonstrated by Toshiba 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. The company recognizes that its robot technologies are still five or six years away from commercialization, 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 WLANs (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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