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Engineered Arts Full-Scale Interactive Humanoids

May 19, 2013

A British firm called Engineered Arts has been building full-sized humanoid robots that are surprisingly social.

Founded in 2004, Engineered Arts’s flagship product is a full humanoid called RoboThespian.  RoboThespian’s head features a moving jaw, internal colored lights, and a small LCD screen for each eye, which allow for substantial expression.  The robot has over 30 degrees of freedom, powered by unique hybrid pneumatic-electric actuators.  The movements (which you can see in the video below) are surprisingly fluid — I find them reminiscent of the animatronics at Disney, but unlike those, RoboThespian also contains sensors and can be programmed to interact with people in a variety of ways, including speech.

A more recently introduced product is SociBot, a half-humanoid (from the waist up) that dispenses with the pneumatics and relies on fully electric actuators.  Less costly and easier to install and maintain than RoboThespian, SociBot also features a fully animated face, using a picoprojector inside the head.  This allows an even wider range of expressions, though I do imagine it places some constraints on the ambient lighting.  SociBot features speech recognition, speech synthesis in over twenty languages, visual person tracking and gesture recognition, and even an RFID reader to allow it to recognize tagged people or objects as they approach.  SociBot can serve something like a (half-)humanoid kiosk, answering questions and greeting visitors.

Working even further down the cost scale, a SociBot-Mini model is available.  This is actually a full-sized robotic bust, made miniature by omitting limbs and half the torso, but with the same facial animation and head/neck articulation as its full-sized cousin.  This robot is aimed at individual researchers or hobbyists who want an affordable starter platform.

So what’s next for Engineered Arts?  Even RoboThespian, which actually does have legs, cannot currently walk.  However, the company has embarked on a 2-year research program to develop legs and dynamic balance to make robots that can walk in a humanlike manner.

Whether they will succeed in that goal, only time will tell.  But already it’s clear that founder Will Jackson and his team have built some remarkably agile and social robots.  There are plenty of great ideas here that hobbyists could learn from to make our own little humanoids seem more human-like, too.

For a look around the Engineered Arts factory, see this BBC News video, and see here for more videos of RoboThespian in action.


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