In context: Even as little as 10 years ago, many people would have thought talking to our phones, and other gadgets might seem a bit weird. Indeed, when Siri first launched in 2011, I remember feeling a little apprehensive using it in public. Now talking to a voice assistant has become almost as ordinary as asking a human for directions — almost, but not quite.
Furhat Robotics wants to change that. The Stockholm-based startup unveiled its Furhat “social robot” at WebSummit on Tuesday. Think of it as a smart speaker, but with a face. The company thinks it will give voice assistants more humanity and make them easier to talk to in a more natural way.
The AI uses a projection system to display a lifelike face on a three-dimensional head-shaped display. It is capable of communicating a wide range of facial expressions and will respond with them accordingly — talk to it angrily, and it might scowl at you, but tell it “good morning,” and it will greet you with a friendly smile.
“This is the culmination of many years of dedicated research and development both internally and through working with industry and technology partners,” said Furhat CEO Samer Al Moubayed. “From its beginnings at KTH [Royal Institute of Technology] we have taken Furhat to a point where social robots are no longer a hope for the future but a reality of today.”
The head has three degrees of motion and will attempt to maintain eye contact with the speaker. It achieves this through a wide-angle high-definition camera and beamforming stereo microphones.
The face is fully customizable. Options including male, female, child, and animal-like faces are available. Gestures and facial expressions are also customizable. There are a variety of voices to choose from as well. Furhat says the customization possibilities allow users to create unique robots with individual personalities.
While the company’s press release states that the robot is “market-ready,” it appears it is not up for sale to consumers just yet. The company is looking for more developers to sign on to the project. It has already gained interest from firms like Disney Research, T-Mobile, Honda, Intel, and others.
Personally, I don’t think talking to an AI with a face is going to make me more comfortable. It seems a little creepy to me, but hey, that's how Siri felt at first too, so who knows.