A new form of human-machine communication
Mask-bot can already reproduce simple dialog. When Dr. Takaaki Kuratate says “rainbow”, for example, Mask-bot flutters its eyelids and responds with an astoundingly elaborate sentence on the subject: “When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow”. And when it talks, Mask-bot also moves its head a little and raises its eyebrows to create a knowledgeable impression.
What at first looks deceptively like a real talking person is actually the prototype of a new robot face that a team at the Institute for Cognitive Systems (ICS) at TU München has developed in collaboration with a group in Japan. “Mask-bot will influence the way in which we humans communicate with robots in the future,” predicts Prof. Gordon Cheng, head of the ICS team. The researchers developed several innovations in the course of creating Mask-bot.
The projection of any number of realistic 3D faces is one of these. Although other groups have also developed three-dimensional heads, these display a more cartoon-like style. Mask-bot, however, can display realistic three-dimensional heads on a transparent plastic mask, and can change the face on-demand. A projector positioned behind the mask accurately beams a human face onto the back of the mask, creating very realistic features that can be seen from various angles, including the side.
Many comparable systems project faces onto the front of a mask - following the same concept as cinema projection. “Walt Disney was a pioneer in this field back in the 1960s,” explains Kuratate. “He made the installations in his Haunted Mansion by projecting the faces of grimacing actors onto busts.” Whereas Walt Disney projected images from the front, the makers of Mask-bot use on-board rear projection to ensure a seamless face-to-face interaction.
This means that there is only a twelve centimeter gap between the high-compression, x0.25 fish-eye lens with a macro adapter and the face mask. The CoTeSys team therefore had to ensure that an entire face could actually be beamed onto the mask at this short distance. Mask-bot is also bright enough to function in daylight thanks to a particularly strong and small projector and a coating of luminous paint sprayed on the inside of the plastic mask. “You don’t have to keep Mask-bot behind closed curtains,” laughs Kuratate.
This part of the new system could soon be deployed in video conferences. “Usually, participants are shown on screen. With Mask-bot, however, you can create a realistic replica of a person that actually sits and speaks with you at the conference table. You can use a generic mask for male and female, or you can provide a custom-made mask for each person,” explains Takaaki Kuratate.