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Sony files for patent on household robot

Sony has applied for a patent on a robotic system that can tell the difference between dirt and a scratch. Are household robots in the company's future?

Sony has applied for a patent on a robotic system that can tell the difference between dirt and a scratch. Are household robots in the company's future?

(Screenshots by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

Sony delves into robotics every now and again. There was the AIBO range of robotic pets, discontinued in 2006 because they were no longer profitable, and QRIO, a humanoid "entertainment robot" designed and marketed, but never sold to consumers. But, while competitors such as Samsung have launched such products as a robotic vacuum cleaner, Sony has steered away from the market, concentrating its efforts on home entertainment, photography and mobile products.

A new patent could indicate a regrouping on household robotics. The company has filed a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) titled "Robot device, method of controlling robot device, computer program, and program storage medium".

The description reads: "The technology disclosed in this specification relates to a robot device, which works in a human living environment to communicate with a human or perform work such as grasp of an object, for example, a method of controlling the robot device, a computer program, and a program storage medium, and especially relates to the robot device, the method of controlling the robot device, the computer program, and the program storage medium for detecting difference between dirt and a scratch on a lens of a camera and difference between dirt and a scratch on a hand."

In short, the patent is for a robot -- the patent describes tasks such as household cleaning and aged care -- the method of controlling the robot, the robot's software and special software designed for detection -- namely, the ability to tell the difference between a speck of dirt and a scratch on a lens.

Why is this important? The robot uses camera lenses to view the world around it. If the robot is assigned to a household task, a scratch on the lens might lead the robot to think there is dirt where there is none; or, conversely, if the robot thinks it is seeing a scratch, it might not be as hygienic as it could be.

The patent explains:

Most of this type of robot devices are provided with a camera, detect or recognise an object in a working space based on an image taken by the camera, and perform the work such as the grasp. Therefore, when there is the dirt or the scratch on the lens of the camera, this significantly affects ability to detect/recognise an object, and this leads to deterioration in operation efficiency. When there is the dirt on a grasping unit of an object such as the hand, a grasped object gets dirty and this gives an adverse mental effect to someone who receives the object.

We suspect such a robotic helper might be a little while away, but in the meantime, the technology has other possibilities. It may not be self-cleaning, but we suspect a camera that could accurately gauge whether its lens was scratched or dirty, and notify the user accordingly, would be very useful indeed.

You can read the full patent online here.