Is this the world’s scariest robot?

Is this the world’s scariest robot?

Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Telenoid robot is designed to be a low-cost stand-in for teachers and caregivers. But with spooky looks like that, can it get any love?
Telenoid R1
A girl receives a lesson via computer from a new humanoid robot called Telenoid R1, shaped like a child and composed of minimal human features.

Osaka University engineering professor Hiroshi Ishiguro has developed a robot designed to act as a cuddly surrogate for distant loved ones or social workers, but people may get more than a little spooked by its ghostly appearance. 

Telenoid R1 is a telepresence robot, a stand-in controlled remotely through a computer like the idealized androids in the sci-fi film “Surrogates.” But due to its low-cost design, Telenoid doesn’t have arms or legs and can’t move around -- it’s more of a “minimalistic human,” according to Ishiguro and collaborators at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR). 

Telenoid R1Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro's latest creation will help distant people communicate, he says.

At the limits of human mimicry

Still, Telenoid’s nine DC electric motors allow it to wiggle its stump-arms and move its head to mimic the movements of its operator. The point is to create the sensation that the user is “present” through the robot. To achieve this, a webcam on the user’s computer tracks his or her face and gestures while speakers in Telenoid’s chest relay the voice via Internet links. In demonstrations, Telenoid has served as a proxy for a teacher, helping a girl with her lessons, and stood in for an old man’s friend, joining him in a calisthenics routine. 

Because Telenoid is supposed to be a surrogate for multiple users, it looks deliberately bland -- perhaps at the very limit of what one might call “human.” It doesn’t appear old or young, male or female, and its abbreviated body is merely a suggestion, though its soft silicone skin is made for cuddling. Its face, however, is realistic. “The most important part is the eyes, for conversation,” says Ishiguro. “The eyes and face are very human-like, but the robot blurs on the periphery.” 

Ishiguro has done research into what makes some robots seem creepy, an effect known as the Uncanny Valley. It’s associated with imperfections in human-like robots that can make them repulsive. Still, he’s convinced Telenoid can be useful. For instance, a social worker could “robot in” to Telenoid and chat with a senior living alone. Osaka-based Eager Co. is slated to begin sales of Telenoid this year. There will be a research version for around US$35,000 and a commercial version for US$8,000, according to IEEE Spectrum

Duplicating real people

Ishiguro has drawn widespread attention for his other telepresence robots, though they have not been put on the market. Unlike Telenoid, they are mechanically complex and very costly to produce. They also look like exact duplicates of real people; the Geminoid robot is a striking copy of Ishiguro himself, while Geminoid F is a copy of a female model.

Telenoid R1An elderly man communicates with his granddaughter via the new humanoid robot called Telenoid R1.Ishiguro isn’t the only roboticist pursuing commercial telepresence robots. Silicon Valley startup Anybots is launching simple wheeled webcam robots for US$15,000 that can roam around offices or factories. Willow Garage, also in California, is developing a wheeled telepresence robot with a large screen showing the remote user. Researchers at Yamagata and Hirosaki universities meanwhile, are working on a small wearable shoulder robot that can convey a distant operator’s gestures. 

Will people want to call Ghostbusters when Telenoid’s around? Ishiguro thinks users can get used to the robot and imagine that friends communicating through it are actually there. Telenoid robots, he says, are simply “new information media that transfer an operator's (human) presence to distant places.”

He plans to test his theories about Telenoid in September when he shows it off at the Ars Electronica festival in Austria.


Author and journalist Tim Hornyak has been covering Japanese culture and technology for over a decade, and has traveled throughout the archipelago.

Read more about Tim Hornyak