Researchers led by Ingo Lutkebohle at Germany’s Bielefeld University are working on an expressive humanoid robot head called FloBi that has simple doll-like features to avoid the effects of the uncanny valley. Slightly larger than an adult human head, FloBi’s modular design allows the researchers to change its perceived gender by snapping together pieces with clips and magnets.
The head and neck have a total of 18 degrees of freedom, including a proprietary magnetic actuator for moving its lips which improves on comparable designs (see KIST’s FRi & Silbot, and USC’s Bandit) by concealing the anchor points of actuation. Its eyebrows, eyelids, eyes, lips, and neck can all move independently to express the usual selection of emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and fear). FloBi is equipped with a camera in each eye, microphones, a gyro sensor, and LEDs in its cheeks to simulate a blush response. It will be used to study natural human-robot interaction and the effects of its external appearance. FloBi probably wouldn’t look out of place in Toy Story.
Personally, I’ve always favored robots with features that match its level of sophistication. Robots as realistic as the Geminoid may look mildly convincing in still photographs, but the effect is shattered when you see it in motion because the actuators and materials simply aren’t there yet. Detecting even the slightest movement of an eyebrow, for example, comes so naturally to people that even Hollywood’s best visual effects studios struggle to recreate them in computer animations. The average person may not be able to tell you what is wrong with something, but they’ll know when it doesn’t look right. Additionally, I think we expect them to be more intelligent than a simple chatbot with canned, halting responses. Robots with extremely abstract features like the SONY QRIO, for example, could never be mistaken for a reanimated corpse, and they lower the observer’s expectations to more realistic levels.