Edge of Innovation

Could we build a Big Hero 6-style robot companion? Well, sort of…


In the computer-animated Disney film Big Hero 6, a young robotics engineer named Tadashi creates an inflatable robot called Baymax. After Tadashi dies in a fire, his younger brother Hiro activates the air-filled automaton and together they team up with a group of geeky college kids to form a band of high-tech heroes.

Baymax is the undoubted star of the show and it’s the relationship between Hiro and his robotic protector that is right at the core of it.

Obviously, the current state of home robotics doesn’t inspire that sort of bond. We might appreciate the automatic, floor-cleaning prowess of an iRobot Roomba but we don’t love it. There’s no real affection for the barbecue-scrubbing Grillbot or for the window-washing abilities of the Winbot 730 either. It’s difficult to feel anything for an appliance.

Future robots will be different. They will be more social and more lovable for it.

Pepper robot
Aldebaran’s Pepper robot has been designed specifically to interact with humans and to recognise emotions.

You can see this already in Japan, where the Pepper robot is a step towards a Baymax-style robotic assistant. Designed for telecoms giant Softbank by the robo-engineers at French company Aldebaran, the 4 ft tall Pepper bots interact with Softbank’s customers in-store and are programmed to respond to human emotions with voice and movement. The result is an engaging, friendly and surprisingly communicative device that almost seems to have a personality.

While Pepper isn’t available for home use yet (although that’s the long term goal for Aldebaran’s technology), there are other promising robotics projects that are closer to commercial availability.

Jibo is arguably leading the way for social robotics. It has been called “the world’s first family robot” by its creator, Dr Cynthia Breazeal. She should know – she founded the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her vision of a home helper is cute like a Pixar character, with a range of animated expressions to match. No wonder then that Jibo has captured the imagination like no other robot to date – a modest $100,000 crowdfunding campaign pulled in over $2.2 million.

It might not look like much, but the little Jibo here is one of the most advanced social robots around.

If this little tabletop gadget delivers on its ambitious plans to talk/listen to its owners and perform simple tasks (Internet searches, setting reminders, taking photos and telling stories), it could revolutionise our perception of what home robotics and AI can do for us. And what they mean to us. Designed to be an open platform, Jibo’s basic skills will expand after its release as developers get their hands on the technology.

It will be one of the first robots to come with its own app store.

This programmable element is arguably what makes home robotics so exciting. Another outfit, 21st Century Robot, plans something similar for its 3D-printable HR-OS1 robot dubbed “Jimmy”. Using a Trossen Robotics Endoskeleton powered by Intel’s Edison technology and running on a Linux open source C++ framework, Jimmy is designed to be customised, hacked and personalised by its builders.

“What’s so exciting about the open source model,” says Intel Futurist and Jimmy architect Brian David Johnson, “is the public gets involved in developing this first generation of crowd-sourced, consumer robots. We all get a say in what they do, and together we will come up with far more ideas, more innovation, and more creativity.”

Intel Jimmy
The customisable Jimmy robot features an Intel Edison-powered Endoskeleton and a 3D-printed body shell.

Just as you can add extra functionality to a smartphone by downloading new apps, open source systems have the potential to grow beyond their core programming. This approach will allow domestic robotics technology to develop faster than any one company could ever realistically manage to push it.

Could we build a Big Hero 6-style robot companion? Well, sort of… Pepper is clean and white like Baymax (as are Jibo and Jimmy). Pepper can move around, talk and it has a friendly humanoid face. It can’t fight crime (that we know of) and isn’t inflatable. That said, air-filled robots aren’t just comic book fancy…

US startup Pneubotics is developing what it calls human assistive “soft robotics” for industrial use and has already developed a fabric based, air powered robotic arm. With all this technology in place, you wouldn’t bet against someone developing their own Baymax-esque balloon robot at some point in the future.



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