Toshiba shows prototype home control robot

Toshiba has developed a prototype robot called ApriPoco that can control a range of devices in the home in response to voice commands.

If you've become hostage to a clutch of remote controls in your living room, never quite sure what all the buttons do and confusing different controllers for different gadgets, then Toshiba might have the answer. It's developed a prototype robot that can act as a voice gateway to just about anything in the room that has a remote control.

The robot is called "ApriPoco" -- a name that mixes up the previous robot's ApriAlpha moniker with the Italian "poco a poco" for "little by little," which is the pace at which it learns commands from users, said Daisuke Yamamoto, a research scientist at Toshiba's humancentric laboratory here in Kawasaki, near Tokyo.

When activated in a room it watches for the infrared signals emitted by remote controls and when it senses one it asks the user "What are you doing?" From the voice reply, for example "Switching on the TV," it begins to learn the meaning of each signal and eventually can imitate the remote control when commanded by voice. So all it takes is to say "Switch on the TV" and the set should spring to life.

The robot also has the ability to remember program names or genres but right now can't match it up with an electronic program guide to, for example, find which channel is broadcasting a news program in response to the command "news."

In a demonstration at the R&D lab in Kawasaki the ApriPoco was able to switch on and off a TV, air conditioner and lamp in response to commands from Yamamoto.

The user has to speak clearly and use simple language to stand a chance of being understood. Toshiba's researchers liken the language required to something like that of a mother speaking to a young child or baby and it's for that reason that ApriPoco has been designed to look somewhat like a baby. It's 27 centimetres tall and has a large round body with small fat wings that take the place of arms, and large, round eyes.

At present the speech recognition system isn't inside ApriPoco. Half of the robot's functions, including the voice recognition system, run in a laptop PC that sits nearby but that will soon be built inside the next version of the prototype device.

The ApriPoco project began in 2006 and the prototype robot shown on Monday is the first public product from the work. Toshiba's robotics work goes back further and ApriPoco's lineage can be traced back to the ApriAlpha project that began in 2003. There are plenty of design similarities between the two robots although the new prototype is much smaller.

Toshiba wants to develop the robot into a commercial product but more development works needs to be done so at present there are no plans to put ApriPoco on sale.

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