MIT Media Lab births robotic weight loss coach
November 27, 2012
While earning his PhD at the MIT Media Lab, Cory Kidd wanted to build a social robot that could have a place and function in the home. One of the potential applications was a lifestyle coach – a robot that you would interact with daily as you try to lose weight. Kidd built a prototype, recruited people for a study, and found that participants using the robot stuck to the weight loss program twice as long as those who used an identical program on a laptop – and that most felt that the robot was more credible than an animated character on the screen.
After graduating, Kidd decided to form a company and market the technology. Since 2008 he has set up shop in Hong Kong, hired designers to revamp the robot's hardware, and worked out the logistics of manufacturing.
From a technological perspective, Autom isn't all that impressive. Beneath its perpetually smiling face, the robot is powered by six servo motors that control the head tilt, eyes, and eyelids. Inside one of the eyes is a camera, which the robot uses to recognize different members of the family. Users primarily interact with the robot through a touch screen which is mounted inside its stationary body. This displays daily questionnaries for tracking your exercise and meal plan. Simple though it may be, once Autom has been set up in your home, it's hard to ignore – people keep coming back to it, and thus stay on target with their weight loss plan.
Currently Autom speaks through text-to-speech, but does not have speech recognition software – that's still being worked on. These and other features will be downloaded directly to the robot through a monthly subscription.
The company is also offering a version of the robot aimed at developers who want to experiment with stuff like image and speech recognition. Developers can access an API that gives control of Autom's motors, camera, mic audio, text-to-speech, and the ability to mix and match these together. As we've seen with similar products, like the AISOY 1, developers may end up adding mobility and other features the robot was never designed for.
After a troubled soft launch last year, in which the pricing details were unclear, the company is now raising funds for the production of Autom through an indiegogo campaign. According to the official website, shipping will begin in the second quarter of 2013 with pricing set at US$299.
The company's video pitch is below.