Swedish startup Furhat Robotics, which makes a tabletop social robot that's a bit like an in-your-face Alexa, unveiled its latest generation social robot last week. The key feature of the robot is an expressive face that's designed to leapfrog across the Uncanny Valley and foster genuine communication with users.
Furhat's secret sauce is a rear projection unit inside the robot's neck that displays a lifelike animated face on an anthropomorphic mask. Unlike most humanoid robots, the platform doesn't suffer from the "close but no cigar" cringe-factor induced by silicon and rubber humanoids.
There's some technological pizzaz under the hood. The robot maintains eye contact and reads emotion and physical cues (the company calls it "situational awareness") via a wide angle hifi camera. The head has three degrees of freedom, and the underlying software is designed to support a robust development ecosystem (Furhat is B2B at this point, and early partners like Honda and Intel will certainly be developing custom applications).
But that face is the real revolution. As the always-excellent Western Bonime points out in Forbes, designing a robot with humans at the center is a departure in a tech landscape obsessed with features. While many social robots are machines dressed up as people, Furhat feels a little closer to a helper in the form of a machine.
The customization that's possible with the projection strategy becomes downright radical when you consider there hasn't yet been a productive dialog among roboticists about issues of race, gender, and age in how robots are portrayed. If we're to have robot companions in the near future, and if those companions do end up taking humanoid form, the way robots look will carry big social consequences.
(One exception to the lack of conversation in this regard is the ongoing critique around the spate of sex robots like Samantha, which are uniformly designed to mimic unrealistic female body types.)
Furhat allows users to select their own characters across a spectrum of identity types. Animated faces are rear-projected onto silica masks that do have permanent structural features, but the physical masks can be swapped out for alternatives.
That means Furhat can become anybody, from a young boy to an old woman, and with skin tones and facial features across the identity spectrum. That kind of approach could speed adoption around the globe.
SEE: Transgender employees in tech: Why this "progressive" industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity (TechRepublic cover story)
There's a glimpse of the looming conversation around robot appearance in one of Furhat's shrewdly chosen use cases: Job interviews. Not only can the robot's appearance, voice, and gestures be changed to better reflect the makeup of a company or to put a candidate at ease, but the use of a robot platform in early stage interviews can help reduce bias that may hurt some candidates.
Furhat isn't available for consumer applications yet, but you might soon see one at an airport or job fair. There's no telling what form it will take.