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Designing a Non-Creepy Humanoid Robot Is a Delicate Affair

Designing a Non-Creepy Humanoid Robot Is a Delicate Affair
technology

When meeting Pepper, it's not just what's on the inside that counts

Melanie Ehrenkranz
  • 20 january 2016

We locked eyes—Pepper’s glimmered blue in recognition. “Bump it bro,” I said to its head, and it rolled up its five fingers into a fist, reached out toward me, and we pounded it.

I met Aldebaran’s humanoid robot Pepper at CES this year to find out if a machine could really delight me enough to convince me to live with it. Pepper stands out from the JIBOs and the iRobots and the Makr Shakrs in that it isn’t designed to serve any particular purpose (personal assistant, cleaner, bartender) beyond being your buddy.

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Was I delighted? Heck yeah. A human-shaped robot gave me a hug and did a choreographed dance for me (though the demo itself was a bit wonky, when Pepper shined, it SHINED), but if a robot’s sole purpose is to be your companion, then it better be a damn good one. As with any piece of hardware, if it’s something we interact with on the day-to-day, then it better be nice to look at.

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In Pepper’s case, the design needs to strike a balance between human and machine—approachable enough to bond with, synthetic enough to reassure us.

Aldebaran says Pepper’s design focuses on emotion. So while the software—the brain of the bot—is crucial in Pepper’s long-term user experience, the hardware, its design, is what will make or break our decision to adopt these social robots into our homes. Below is a breakdown of each robot quality and how it was designed to lure in the user through natural and intuitive interactions.

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Eyes and ears: Pepper can express itself through the color of its eyes thanks to a four directional microphone in its head as well as two 3D cameras and two HD cameras that enable him to identify your location, movements and detect where sounds are coming from. The Aldebaran team designed Pepper’s ears and eyes to illuminate in a specific color to indicate its cognizance of your presence, a simple visual cue signaling “I hear you” or “I see you.”

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Body: Pepper was designed to command your attention without intimidating you. Rodolphe Gelin, CSO of Aldebaran, told PSFK that the form factor was chosen rather rapidly. The team wanted it to have wheels (hence the skirt, to hide them), no legs, and a family resemblance to NAO, though more than twice its size.

“There was danger in making it more threatening than NAO if we had kept the brawny appearance of the little robot—large chest, visible biceps and quadriceps—so the shape of the arms and the leg are much more fluid than NAO,” Gelin told us.

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Hands: Gelin told us that the hands need to be beautiful yet resistant and flexible in the face of collision exposure. The thing is, Pepper doesn’t need five fingers for efficient grasping capabilities—all the fingers are opened and closed simultaneously by the same motor—but users expect five fingers (like us humans).

Romeo, one of our other robots, only has four fingers and it makes the public curiously unhappy. From a purely functional point of view, when all the fingers are controlled synchronously, three fingers, one opposite to the two others, are enough,” says Gelin.

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Joints: The Aldebaran team refined Pepper’s joints to be kid-friendly. The team told us that, since they are hoping it’ll be adopted by family households, they needed to adjust the joints so that tiny fingers won’t get pinched.

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Gender: I asked the Albedaran team if I should refer to Pepper as he, she or it. Their answer: whatever you want. They didn’t assign a gender to Pepper but did say that most people lean toward referring to Pepper as a ‘him,’ though some people attribute the curvaceous model as yielding a ‘her.’ I have opted for ‘it.’

Voice: Gelin told us that Pepper’s narrow waist inspired the rather high-pitched voice; the team wanted the tone of the voice to match its appearance. It had to be soft to be reassuring; understandable, but not too perfect.

“It is possible to have a synthetic voice sounding like a real human voice, but we wanted to keep some robotic color in its voice to recall that Pepper is a machine and just a machine. Having a too perfect voice, as the AI in the movie Her, could make users forget that they are interacting with a machine.”

Movement: Pepper is equipped with an anti-collision system, three multi-directional wheels and no less than 20 engines. This means Pepper can move around freely without bumping into people or things, precisely control its movements and operate at a maximum speed of 3 km/h.

Pepper’s battery life gives it about 12 hours of robo-autonomy.

What intrigued me the most was that Pepper is never static. Even when not in use, Pepper will display minor movements to indicate its presence in the home. Albedaran didn’t want it to be free to roam around, but the team did want Pepper to establish its role, in that it’s not a coffeemaker or TV where it is lifeless when off and hums or lights up to perform its actions when on—it’s there to easily interact with when desired, and not simply a machine, but a social presence.

Brains: IBM announced that Pepper will now be powered by Watson, meaning, on top of being able to interpret a smile, frown, tone of voice, lexical field and non-verbal language, it will also be able to better understand and learn from the world around it.

An artificially intelligent social robot! This is the future! This is what all of those fear-mongering ‘us vs. the machines’ movies (see: Ex Machina, I, Robot, The Terminator) have been forecasting, right? This is why designing social robots is a delicate process: robot encounters are often met with snap judgments—it’s cute or it’s creepy, and if it’s creepy, we sure as hell don’t want it to live in our home with us.

Pepper

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