Telenoid R1 bot meant to be 'minimalistic human'

Robot wizard Hiroshi Ishiguro's latest creation comes with a high creep factor. But if you hug it, the creepiness goes away. Maybe.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read

It's a boy! Or not. ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories

Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has unveiled his latest creation, and it's a far cry from the ultra-lifelike robot clones he has produced in the past. Meet Telenoid R1, designed to be a "minimalistic human." Or a nightmare baby. Take your pick.

Telenoid is a child-sized telepresence robot through which users can interact with others from a distance. Created in collaboration with Osaka University and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR), Telenoid is a tool for investigating "the essential elements for representing and transferring humanlike presence," according to Ishiguro and his team.

Telenoid R1
A face only a mother--or roboticist--could love. Video screenshot by TimHornyak/CNET

As seen in the video below, Telenoid users can interact with people at a distance through a laptop. The control system tracks the user's face and head motion and captures his or her voice. The motions and voice are relayed to Telenoid, which expresses them while interacting.

The most striking feature of the robot is its design, which packs a high creep factor. It's meant to appear neither male nor female, young nor old. It has an abbreviated torso and arms, but can wiggle around to a limited extent while on its stand.

Compared with Ishiguro's Geminoid F and Geminoid telepresence robots, Telenoid has far fewer actuators--only nine DC actuators instead of dozens of pneumatic actuators--meaning it will cost much less to manufacture.

Osaka software firm Eager plans to start distributing Telenoid later this year. A research version will be priced around $35,000 and a commercial version about $8,000, according to IEEE Spectrum.

Ishiguro cloned himself in robot form when he made Geminoid, and his reputation as a robot showman is sure to grow with Telenoid. But I doubt people will want to spend big bucks on something so clearly creepy. Ishiguro has done research on the so-called Uncanny Valley effect and how people react to humanlike robots that have disturbing flaws. CB2, also from Osaka University, might rank as one of the scariest automatons known to man.

Telenoid reminds me both of phocomelia, a birth defect associated with thalidomide, as well as that horrific baby in "Eraserhead." Ishiguro and colleagues, however, say that Telenoid just takes some getting used to.

"If a friend speaks from the Telenoid, we can imagine the friend's face on the Telenoid's face," IEEE Spectrum quoted them as saying. "If we embrace it, we have the feeling that we embrace the friend."

Who's up for a Telenoid hug? It'll be at Austria's Ars Electronica festival early next month.