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NTU scientists unveil social and telepresence robots

30 December 2015

Meet Nadine, a 'receptionist' at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. She will greet you and the next time you meet her, she will remember your name and your previous conversation with her.

NTU Singapore's Professor Nadia Thalmann (the one in the red dress) shaking hands with Nadine (photo: NTU Singapore)

Unlike conventional robots, the humanoid robot Nadine expresses personality, mood and emotions. She can be happy or sad, depending on the conversation, and she also has a good memory, and can recognise the people she has met, remembering what those people have said before.

Nadine is the latest social robot developed by scientists at NTU. The doppelganger of its creator, Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of the Institute for Media Innovation at NTU, Nadine is powered by intelligent software similar to Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. Her potential applications include personal assistants in offices and homes, or social companions for the young and the elderly.

A humanoid robot like Nadine is just one of the interfaces where the technology can be applied. It can also be made virtual and appear on a TV or computer screen, and become a low-cost virtual social companion.

"Robotics technologies have advanced significantly over the past few decades and are already being used in manufacturing and logistics," says Professor Thalmann. "As countries worldwide face challenges of an ageing population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future."

Over the past four years, the team at NTU has fostered cross-disciplinary research into social robotics technologies - involving engineering, computer science, linguistics, psychology and other fields - to transform a virtual human, from within a computer, into a physical being that is able to observe and interact with other humans.

"This is somewhat like a real companion that is always with you and conscious of what is happening. So in future, these socially intelligent robots could be like C-3PO, the iconic golden droid from Star Wars, with knowledge of language and etiquette," adds Professor Thalmann

Right: NTU's EDGAR 1 and left: EDGAR 2 (photo: NTU Singapore)

Telepresence robotics

EDGAR, complete with a rear-projection screen for its face and two highly articulated arms, is another NTU innovation. EDGAR is a tele-presence robot optimised to project the gestures of its human user. By standing in front of a specialised webcam, a user can control EDGAR remotely from anywhere in the world. The user's face and expressions will be displayed on the robot's face in real time, while the robot mimics the person's upper body movements.

EDGAR can also deliver speeches by autonomously acting out a script. With an integrated webcam, he automatically tracks the people he meets to engage them in conversation, giving them informative and witty replies to their questions. Such social robots are ideal for use at public venues, such as tourist attractions and shopping centres, as they can offer practical information to visitors.

Led by Associate Professor Gerald Seet from the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and the BeingThere Centre at NTU, this made-in-Singapore robot represents three years of research and development.

"EDGAR is a real demonstration of how telepresence and social robots can be used for business and education," says Professor Seet. "Telepresence provides an additional dimension to mobility. The user may project his or her physical presence at one or more locations simultaneously, meaning that geography is no longer an obstacle.

"In future, a renowned educator giving lectures or classes to large groups of people in different locations at the same time could become commonplace. Or you could attend classes or business meetings all over the world using robot proxies, saving time and travel costs."

Several companies have expressed interest in NTU's robot technologies and NTU scientists are now seeking to partner with industry to bring them to market.

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