Is "emotional robot" an oxymoron? Not necessarily, say the creators of the Heart Robot.
This robot/puppet, which is made of soft, flexible plastic, appears to breathe, blink, flinch, and clench its fists in response to human encounters. Experts in the diverse fields of robotics, animatronics, street theater, puppetry, and Web design converged to design the bot, which is meant to evoke emotion in those who meet it.
Swathed in white Egyptian cotton, it looks like a slightly forlorn cousin of ET. Its nervous system is made up of five small computers that work together to produce reactions. Motors move its eyelids and hands and make its little red, rubber heart beat--more slowly if you cuddle it, and faster if you shake it, yell at it, or otherwise stress the poor little guy out.
Sensors allow the bot to detect other objects. Two air pumps in its legs drive its breathing system, which, like the heart, responds to the robot's level of "worry" or "relaxation" by speeding up or slowing down accordingly.
The bot's creators want people to understand that robots don't have to be metallic, distant, or controlling, but can actually evoke real feelings. (Just consider the popularity and emotional punch of this summer's Pixar flick Wall-E, with its winsome title character and Wall-E's robo-love interest, Eva.) The team expects robots of the future to increasingly use the language of emotion to communicate and want to know how that will impact human behavior.
Heart "has large deep soulful eyes, delicate ears, hands, and feet and is warm to touch," said David McGoran, a project coordinator at the University of the West of England, which oversaw the construction of the robot. "We are hoping that people will feel an emotion in response to the robot and that this will inspire them to find out more about robotics." McGoran is also is the puppeteer who brings Heart Robot to life in public.
Heart Robot, which has been created in versions ranging from about 2 feet tall to about 3 feet tall, has made its way out of the lab, appearing at street festivals and science fairs around England over the last few months. Currently, it's starring in the interactive Emotibots event at London's Science Museum, which runs through Thursday. If you happen to be in the London area, you might want to stop by and give it some love.