KTH researchers develop interactive, socialrobot
Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technologyhave developedwhat they describe as an interactive robotic head that takes its name from thefur hat it wears. With a computer-generated, animated face that isrear-projected on a 3D mask, Furhat functions as a testing platform for various interactivetechnologies such as speech synthesis, speech recognition and eye-tracking. Therobot can conduct conversations with multiple people, turning its head andlooking each person straight in the eye, while moving its animated lips insynch with its words.
Samer Al Moubayed, one of the KTHresearchers behind the development of Furhat, said the project represents thethird generation of spoken dialogue systems that has been in development atKTH’s department for speech, music and hearing during the last 15 years
The Furhat team aims to develop itstechnology for commercial use, with the help of funding from Sweden’s Vinnova,a government agency that supports innovation projects. The team behind thedevelopment of Furhat also includes: Jonas Beskow, Joakim Gustafson and GabrielSkantze.
“Furhat is becoming a popularresearch platform for scientists around the world who study human interactionwith machines,” Al Moubayed noted. “It’s very simple, it’spotentially very cheap to make, and people want to use it in their own researchareas.”
Furhat also has attracted attention fromresearchers at Microsoft and Disney. “They have been following thedevelopment of Furhat for a long time,” indicated Al Moubayed, whopresented the hardware and software behind Furhat at Microsoft’s and Disney’sresearch labs.
Al Moubayed added that Furhat haspotential as an interactive user interface for a variety of applications. Inschools, it could be used to conduct knowledge games with children. In assistedliving centers, it could share information and chat with people.
Perched on a stand atop a bureau in AlMoubayed’s office, Furhat greets a visitor and asks their name. It thenaddresses Al Moubayed, and after a couple more questions, asks if the visitorhas any questions for Furhat. During a pause in the exchange, the robot offersto tell a joke.
Part of what sets Furhat apart from otherinteractive robots is its ability to make not only conversation, but eyecontact-an important element of communication.
“You want an interface that fulfilsor reaches a critical quality that people can interact with in a natural way,otherwise the interaction you get is not natural anymore, and does not resemblehow people interact with each other.”
Furhat’s ability to turn its face tomultiple people in a conversation is enabled by face-tracking software. But itsability to make eye contact is achieved through projection. Unlike a 2D image,which can appear to be looking at everybody in the room at once, a phenomenonknown as the “Mona Lisa effect,” Furhat appears to shift its gazebecause the face is projected onto 3D-printed model of a human face.
“When we first experimented withthis, the effect was strong immediately,” Al Moubayed noted. “Youcould bond with, or relate to, the face.
“It is an avatar that can really bepresent in the physical environment.”
Such technologies are being explored as apotential therapeutic tool for children with autism and other disorders thataffect social interaction, he said. The technology can also be used fortelepresence applications in which 3D replicas of people’s faces become thescreens that we look at when conducting a video conference call.
“There are many different types ofinterest that drive this work,” he stated. “And we’re just startingto explore its potential.”