In 2007, a video on YouTube of a little dancing robot that looked kind of like a yellow snowman with the consistency of a marshmallow went viral, drawing to date more than 2.7 million views. The robot’s name was Keepon, and it was a research project with a price tag of about $30,000. Later this month, you’ll be able to buy your very own home version, My Keepon, for around $50. I’m not normally the type of person who squees, but the imminent arrival of My Keepon – plus the chance to talk to Keepon developer Marek Michalowski last week — has made me a happy robot fan.
The original Keepon Pro was the invention of Hideki Kozima, a Japanese researcher looking into ways to use robots to interact with autistic children. Kozima’s Keepon was basically a puppet. While kids prodded and studied the robot in one room, a therapist watching the children through Keepon’s camera eyes in another room guided its movements. According to Michalowski, the theory is not that autistic kids don’t want to interact with other people, but that they experience an information overload, a flood of information. Researchers wanted to see if they expressing the therapist’s intentions through the robot would help kids to engage with it.
While this work was going on in Japan, Michalowski was working on his Ph.D. in robotics at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Born in Poland and raised in New York City, he had come to robotics after studying psychology and artificial intelligence at Yale, where “the professor told me intelligence only matters if it is embodied in the world.” He decided to study social intelligence in robots because “it is the most complicated and challenging field of study right now.”
Michalowski was interested in non-verbal learning, “Animal-level behaviors. When we’re facing each other and reacting, we mirror each other’s pose, nodding, blinking, etc. The tempo becomes synchronized.” He decided to teach robots to engage in rhythmic synchrony – and the first step was to make a robot dance.
“In music and dance there are beats we can more easily process.”
Looking for a good platform for the programs he wanted to develop, Michalowski found that the smoothness of movement of the Keepon worked well for dancing. It was rhythmic, not rigid and mechanical. He went to Japan and joined Kozima in visits to the day program for autistic children, where they had started seeing eye contact with Keepon, touching, that they didn’t see before.
“It cut through the noise a little bit, ” Michalowski said.
(Michalowski is quick to note that they are not making therapeutic claims for Keepon at this point. They’re just doing research into how kids interact with the robot.)
Michalowski was pleased with his efforts to make Keepon dance to music it “hears” through a microphone in its nose The video showing the robot dancing to the song “I Turn My Camera On” by the band Spoon was just something he made to show his friends what he had been doing in Japan. After he showed it at a conference, he uploaded it to YouTube and it went viral. Wired.com made a second, more professional video using another song by the group Spoon. (Michalowski said the group was pleased and surprised that he bothered to contact them for permission to use their song.)
Michalowski and Kozima eventually formed a company, Beatbots, to produced Keepon Pro for researchers. Then they were approached by Wow! Stuff, UK-based toy manufacturer.
“The company wanted to tell that story [about the robot’s initial use] and support that work” Michalowski explained. “That was a good thing that made us very receptive. And they had ideas about what the toy would do mechanically and [programming-wise].”
The toymakers and Beatbots decided the most appealing aspects of Keepon was its dancing and its response to touch. So for the toy version, there are two modes that can be selected using buttons built into My Keepon’s stage. It has a mic in the nose, as in the original. The dancing is autonomous, built up from different parameters to make it change over time and stay interesting. That was reproduced in the toy. In touch mode, you can generate “interesting emotional responses” by poking or patting My Keepon in several spots..
Is the toy a real robot? Michalowski defines a robot as something that perceives its environment and then behaves accordingly, with cognition linking the two.
“In that sense, even My Keepon satisfies that definition. It has software that generates appropriate behavior for given inputs. It also satisfies more popular notions of what a robot is. It’s insides are filled with electronics, for example. At the same time, the design of Keepon is unique as far as robots go. Instead of being hard and metal, it’s soft and squishy. In some sense, the toy is more of a robot than the research robot, which was being puppeteered by the therapist. Even for research, though, it depends on how it is being used.”
Asked about reports that Keepon be hackable, Michalowski replied, “We can’t encourage anyone to void their warranty. But I can say that we are supporters of the Maker movement. I have a Makerbot. We do want to do everything we can to foster that community. We do want to support customization of the robot. We’ll talk more about these things next year.”
What about kids who want a Keepon because of their interest in robotics?
“It will respond to its environment. But we’ve been spoiled by science fiction to think that robots can talk back to us. The technology is beyond our abilities right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t have relationships with robots. Very simple things can be engaging.”
He added that he hopes My Keepon changes the impression of what a robot is, and shows that a robot can be soft and cute and friendly, not hard and mechanical. And he is anxious to people use their My Keepon to make their own videos in different settings, “and kind of participate in the act of creation.”
My Keepon is supposed to hit the shelves around October 24. For this holiday season it will be available exclusively at Toys R Us, where it can be pre-ordered now. A portion of every My Keepon purchase will be used to expand the Keepon Pro family of research robots, which will be distributed to researchers and practitioners investigating the use of robots in autism therapy. For updates on My Keepon news, appearances, contests, videos and more, visit MyKeepon.com, like My Keepon on Facebook, or follow My Keepon on Twitter.