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Interfacing with the Physical, via Robot

If the best way for an individual to live life, as is true for a fair segment of the population; if they desire happiness, and a life in which they are not judged for their physical shell, but for whom they are themselves, is to retreat from the physical, into the virtual, then this brings up certain challenges.

We are looking here, beyond the sheer medical complexities of sustaining a life in which the shell is but undesired chattel, mere flesh acting as a life support component for a brain hooked into another form, a virtual form.

We look instead at what happens when you cast off the physical shell, and either descend or ascend, depending on your point of view, into another life, a better, virtual life.

For all but a very few people, the ability to 'wall off' the outside world permanently will not be present, due to the necessity of paying bills, maintaining equipment, and the all-but-discarded physical forms.

Not to mention still communicating with loved-ones, pursuing careers, and being aware of the world around. Much, if not most of that can be accomplished via virtual reality. However, it seems harsh to force everyone else to come to you, rather than going o them, as much.

The concept of utilising robots for telepresence is not a new idea. It does not matter to the robot, nor to the people on the other end, if it connects a physical visage or a virtual visage. What matters is it is able to experience the physical world, the world cast off. It is able to navigate it, and attend meetings in locations where there may not be other equipment at all.

The concept of 'being there without going', or telepresence, is a familiar one.

Already, we are seeing some limited examples.

Humanoid Remote Waldoes

Hiroshi Ishiguro is a senior researcher at ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories outside Kyoto, in Japan. With a hectic schedule, he has created a machine in his own image -a robot that looks and moves exactly like him. It sits on a chair and gazes around the room in a very humanlike fashion, just like its creator. In fact, the robot is an exact duplicate.

It blinks and fidgets in its seat, moving its foot up and down restlessly, its shoulders rising gently as though it were breathing. These micro movements are so convincing that it's hard to believe this is a machine - it seems more like a man wearing a rubber mask. But a living, breathing man.

However, it is little more than a puppet, and this is what makes it so interesting, as an example of a virtual life.

Everything the robot says and does - beyond the idle movements, and the little ticks that make it seem alive - is controlled by Ishiguro. The robot's lips move to sync with the sound of Ishiguro's voice coming out of it. It is (conservatively) expected that we will have artificial, computer-controlled voices capable of replicating the human voice by 2017, so even this can be controlled from within the virtual, without a functional physical body.

The robot can be operated remotely so the robot reproduces the voice, posture and lip movements of Ishiguro, who wears a motion-capture system. As with all such systems, a full virtual body could replicate this effect just as easily, if not more easily if a brain is wired directly in.

Ishiguro, whose job is teaching at Osaka University, an hour's drive away, designed his robot so he could "robot in" to his classes and skip the commute.

"The idea is tele-interaction," says Ishiguro, who is also head of the university's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory. "If I access the android through the internet, I do not need to go to ATR anymore."

Ishiguro is mainly using the bot to teach his classes for him, and creep out students with lifelike movements such as blinking, "breathing" and fidgeting.


IvanAnywhere is the name programmer Ivan Bowman has given to a home-made telepresence robot that lets him attend meetings, chat with colleagues, and generally lurk around his office in Waterloo, Canada, from the comfort of his home some 1,350 kilometres away in Nova Scotia.

After Bowman relocated to Nova Scotia, he found teleconferencing made it difficult to interact properly with his co-workers. His work colleagues tried to adapt by placing a webcam at the meeting table.

But Bowman soon found it too frustrating to hear his colleagues chatting away just out of earshot in another room. They then tried putting the webcam on a remote-controlled truck, and Bowman became a menace underfoot, careening around, out of sight and whacking people in the shin.

Finally, they found a more suitable remote-controlled platform and mounted everything on top of it, at head-height, using a pole. Both Bowman and his co-workers seem to be happy with the arrangement. He can easily wheel IvanAnywhere into someone's office for a quick chat and attend meetings in different parts of the office.

Again, as with the robot teacher, there is no reason why a device that is basically a webcam/ microphone and a screen/speakers, has to get it's data from the physical world. It could just as easily be wired into the virtual, as a conduit between the two.

In closing

In closing, it seems robotic telepresence is catching on, with or without life in the virtual. With this trend already starting, it seems perfectly possible for someone whose life is in VR, to interact through that VR, out to people in the physical world, relatively seamlessly.

On the flip side, technologies already exist to translate the physical world the robot sees, into a 3D model in the virtual, so you can memorise where things are that you are not looking at at the time. Currently they are neither quick nor efficient, but they did not even exist two years ago.

In fact, with additional cameras you would actually gain an advantage over those physically present. You would be able to see behind you without turning the robot's head, and see collisions coming.


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