Day 6

Roombas, Kuri and Pepper, oh my! How designers make us feel good about home robots (Repeat)

Home robots are on their way and the design behind them is crucial to making you feel comfortable about that inevitability — instead of creeped out.
Kuri is a home robot that can read to your kids, play tunes, and remind you that the laundry is finished. It won't, however, bring you a drink. (Mayfield Robotics)

Kuri will "sing" to you and it will remind you that the casserole is done.

It will also tell you if Rufus is on the couch again and turn on a speaker so you can tell him to skedaddle.

Kuri will not, however, pour you a drink or make the bed.

But one day, Kuri's older cousins might just do that.

Kuri is part of a class of devices known as "home robots." They've been around since the 1980s and you might even have one in your house rolling around the floors. Does Roomba ring a bell?

If science fiction and The Jetsons are to be believed, we will all one day have a robot in our home. But companies developing such technology have a problem: we're kind of afraid of robots.

"Western dystopian sci-fi has made us wary of robots, but design can play a huge role in people's acceptance of the technology," says Kate Darling, a human-robot interaction researcher at MIT.

Standing only 50 centimetres tall, Kuri is marketed as a unique companion for your child. (Mayfield Robotics)


The 'aww' factor

The obvious solution is to make robots friendly. Certainly, you're unlikely to buy something that looks like Darth Vader or a skeletal dog — especially if it's going to roll into your bedroom for a wake-up call.

But build a shiny, round companion with a charming personality, expressive design and delightful voice and you'll be more likely to summon Rosie to the living room.

Kuri's expressive eyes and "heart light" represents its current state. (Mayfield Robotics)

"There's a design opportunity for us to think of robots as this completely new creature that can be anything we can imagine," says Guy Hoffman, an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell University.

Hoffman has worked with robots in his labs at Cornell University and IDC Herzliya. He's long studied the ability of robots to display human-like emotions.

"You'd be surprised that people mostly look at a very limited set of human emotions," says Hoffman. "There's a set of six basic emotions and a set of 16 more expansive emotions. Robots are usually designed to express only the basic set."

Kuri is able to express itself with a set of eyes that look to you when you speak and a "heart light" that lets you know it's thinking. It also communicates using bleeps and bloops rather than spoken language.

One of Hoffman's robots, Vyo, is even more simple and communicates only through movement. Vyo is able to both control and provide a status on your home by displaying emotion and moving small Lego-like switches. For example, if your air conditioner is on the fritzVyo might tilt its "head" around looking confused. If all's well, Vyo will smile — as much as a microscope-shaped robot can smile.

"When my vacuum cleaner robot goes back and forth under a table because it's stuck, I feel bad for it. I feel like it's sad and it's tired and it can't get out," Hoffman notes.

"Once these robots hit us in the emotional gut, I believe that it's much more likely that we will respond to this than we would respond to a text message saying 'your robot is stuck.'"



Say goodbye to Whiskers

So far, home robots are fairly limited in their capabilities. Some can control your smart home virtually in a similar way to Google Home or Amazon Echo, but can't pick things up. So, they may be able to turn on the coffee maker, but they can't actually bring you some fresh java.

But according to Kate Darling, a generation of robot pets is growing up.

"For households, for families, for children, we're already at the point where we're starting to see some interesting technology that can replace a household pet," she says.

It doesn't replace the purr of a living cat, but could prove useful in nursing homes. Paro, a robotic seal complete with white fur, provides a form of animal therapy to older adults.

Pleo, a dinosaur, goes back a few million years to deliver a prehistoric take on the form and is aimed at entertaining children.

"They're basically toys. They're the size of a cat," says Darling. "They have all these motors and touch sensors and they mimic very life-like behaviour. They're really compelling from an anthropomorphism perspective.

"People will project all sorts of emotions onto them, even though it's clear that they're just machines."


Stay away from Uncanny Valley!

Pepper, right, stands next to its smaller sibling, Nao. The humanoid social robot accepts commands through voice recognition and a touchscreen. (SoftBank Robotics)

Part of the reason that animals and non-humans are popular within the field of robotics is that they're easier for us to accept into our lives. People are willing to take a leap of faith when it comes to these creatures, but not when humans are turned animatronic.

"The most successful designs in social robotics don't try to get too close to [appearing] human or too close to something we're intimately familiar with, because if you try to do that and you don't completely nail it, then it seems a little off to people," says Darling.

Yet pets can only do so much. To be truly useful, robots will need fully functional arms and hands. The technology isn't there yet. Kuri, for example, only has the outline of arms on its plastic body.

Pepper, made by Japanese company SoftBank Robotics, is getting close. Not only is it human-shaped and the height of a young child, it uses arms for expression. Pepper won't replace a butler, but it will play games and chat with you. Its built-in artificial intelligence will learn more about you as you interact with it.

You won't find it in many homes just yet, at least on this side of the Pacific Ocean, but Pepper is already greeting customers at stores and aboard cruise ships.



Pepper and Kuri don't come cheap. The Japanese customer service agent retails for around $2,000 (U.S.). The chirping and whirring Kuri is available for pre-order at $800.

As Darling points out, Kuri doesn't have much functionality aside from being cute.

"It remains to be seen whether that's enough to get people to buy it."


To hear the more from Guy Hoffman and Kate Darling, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.