German scientists have taught a humanoid robot to find its way by asking for directions from people in the street. Fitted with an array of cameras and sensors, the automaton represents a significant step in the development of robots that can intergrate with society.
MUNICH, GERMANY (RECENT) (REUTERS) - Being asked for directions by a handsome stranger with big blue eyes and a friendly smile sounds like the beginning of a script for a Hollywood romantic comedy. When that stranger is a robot, that script begins to delve into the realms of fantasy. But this scenario is exactly what is unfolding inMunich, as IURO (Interactive Urban Robot) asks locals on the street for help in navigating its way home.
Researchers at the Technical University in Munich (TUM), the ETH Zurich and the University of Salzburgare collaborating on an EU-funded project into human-android interaction. They've programmed IURO (pron: Euro) to recognise humans and spatial surroundings, fitting it with stereo cameras located in its forehead, while a Kinect sensor allows it better depth perception. It also has a built-in touch screen interface and moves on wheels, using laser range finders to prevent IURO from bumping into things.
By sending IURO out into the real world with a predertmined destination but no directions, makes the project unique. The team watched IURO being put to the test on the streets of Munich recently, approaching people and asking for directions to its destination. Using what it was told, the automaton had to be able to visually recognise and track people while interacting with them through speech synthesis and recognition.
The android can follow up to five stages of basic instruction, such as turn left, turn right, or go straight ahead. When it believes it has reached its destination IURO will ask another bystander for confirmation. Its developers say that, so long as it hasn't received deliberately false advice, it will always reach its destination eventually. So far its only complete failures have occurred when it has suffered a technical short-circuit or run out of batteries, which last for between five and six hours.
Co-developer Dirk Wollherr (PRON: Deerk Voll-hair), from TUM, says the focus of the project is not about developing a commercial product. "It is really about investigating fundamental abilities like interaction with humans and action, navigation in dynamically changing environments, that means: navigation amongst humans on a sidewalk. Our long-term vision maybe is to develop robots that can actually act and interact in human environments like your private household, where it helps you in undesired tasks," he said.
The project has taken six years to reach this stage. IURO is an updated version of the more basic first prototype called ACE (Autonomous City Explorer) which toured Munich city centre in June 2009. Version two is more human in its look. No more a technical box of metal and wires, IURO now has an expressive face with moving eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, lips, lower jaw, and ears, all actuated by a total of 21 servo motors.
The goal is to make IURO approachable and understandable to the general public. Its creator believes having an expressive face helps. IURO can emulate different emotions: blinking to show surprise, raising its eyebrows to appear inquisitive, and wiggling its ears to indicate that it's listening.
"This robot has a much more refined ability of communication. It has a kind of multi-modal interaction, there is the pure verbal interaction, there is the ability of showing emotions and also of showing andreading gesture," says Wollherr.
On the streets of Munich those approached by IURO warmed immediately to the robot.
"I find him quite nice. He also talked to me very naturally and also used expressions like 'emm' and also interesting that he understood me, even though I talked with an accent," said passer-by Dominik Kolisch.
Young mother Vivika Carlson also helped the robot find his way, but added that she preferred human conversation. "I think he understands my words, but I would wish for someone who understands me fully. And I would also like him to be able to do something useful for me," said Carlson.
IURO weighs 160 kilograms and relies on heavy-duty batteries to travel, but on the evidence of its experimental stroll through Munich city centre, the robot is more than capable of finding its way around.
Wollherr says his team of researchers are seeking more funding to produce the next generation of travelling robot.