Robothespian humanoid robot delivers human-like stage performances
By Jan Belezina
November 15, 2011
Engineered Arts Ltd.'s Robothespian is probably one of the first professional robotic actors who made it into the real world (sorry, T-1000). Its elegant movements, extraordinary body language and emotion-conveying skills make it a great communicator. It may not be capable of helping the elderly, it's not nearly as agile and athletic as Boston Dynamics' PETMAN, and it's unlikely to be of any use during eye surgery. But that's OK. Robothespian is an artist. A robot burdened with the task of exploring the ephemeral territory of the arts and claiming it for his robotic brethren. And it seems it is extremely well equipped to get the job done.
Thanks to LCD eyes that convey emotions and feelings to match what is being said, along with emotive LED lighting in its body shell, Robothespian has become proficient at the art of mesmerizing its audience. If you need a captivating story-teller, just hire a professional voice-over artist once and then leave Robothespian to deliver the same powerful act over and over again.
The robot seems ideal for science education purposes, partly because it's engaging and very cost-effective (no cigarette or lunch breaks), and partly because in a decade or two, the robotics industry is likely to become as significant as the automotive industry. Robothespian's task of entertaining and educating today's schoolchildren in science museums may one day turn out to have played a very important role.
It also has all the makings of a good actor. It can read text and add expression to your script, plus it can sing, dance and perform on stage without ever succumbing to stage fright. Thanks to motion capture software, it is able to mimic the movements of someone in the audience. It can also recognize faces and track people in a crowd.
Robothespian is a web connected device and it can be controlled via an online interface. You can see what the robot sees, and you can tell it what to do or say from virtually anywhere in the world, which makes it a powerful telepresence tool. The robot can also handle interaction with humans independently, as it's capable of looking up answers to queries on the Web. It can also control theater lighting and multichannel sound. Most importantly, however, it can work day and night without a break and without compromising the quality of the performance.
Robothespian comes in three different flavors, with an entry-level model 3 costing GBP55,000 (US$87,208). Therefore, it could be considered very cost effective, especially if you take into account that the robot adds a level of audience engagement that is beyond that of most presenters. So, what's in the box?
The humanoid is 1m 75cm (5'9") tall, weighs in at 33 kg (73 lbs), sports an aluminum chassis and a body shell made of polyethylene terephthalate. It offers over 30 axes of movement, with some movements handled by air muscles and other by servo motors. There is an integrated computer on board with a 1.6 GHz Atom processor and a 32GB SSD to store motion information and control software. A head-mounted camera enables remote image streaming for telepresence purposes (again, face tracking capabilities come in handy). There is also an integrated 20W audio amp for verbal delivery. The robot comes with an interface PC and a 19-inch touchscreen housed in a standing console. To operate, it requires an electrical supply, a compressed air supply and an Internet connection used for remote maintenance and diagnostics.
Robothespians have been around for a while now. The project started in January 2005 and the goal was to supply a troop of robotic actors to perform at the "Mechanical Theatre" at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Model 2 came out nearly three years ago and was the first to gain wider attention with seven robots sold. Currently more than 20 Model 3s work in museums and science education projects around the world. They are used in presentations, as greeters, guides, or even as robotic spokespeople (since you can automate a performance in virtually any language, the Robothespian is truly a citizen of the world).
Model 4 is planned to be released about two years from now, but the final capabilities of the new model have not yet been decided. The creators considered moving to a fully bipedal robot (as opposed to one attached to a round stabilizing base), but this will only be done if they are able to overcome safety issues related to the possibility of the robot falling over in a public environment.
And what about the robot's main vocation - acting? Well, you can buy a package consisting of three robotic thespians, complete with a stage, a lighting and projector rig, speakers, and an integrated control system. Engineered Arts take care of setting the whole thing up, provide the necessary training and online support. All that is left to do is to create actions and save them to a timeline using the open source 3D animation software called Blender. The animation is then used to program the robotic actors' performance.
One such robotic theater is located at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw, Poland, where you can watch a performance called "Prince Ferrix and Princess Crystal" based on a short story by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem. Check out the Copernicus Science Centre's website for more details and see the video below for a sample of the robothespian's exquisite acting skills.