Say 'hi' to Nadine, the companion robot

Prof Nadia Thalmann (left) with Nadine, a humanoid that looks almost like a human, with a full head of hair and dewy skin. Researchers hope in future, Edgar 2 (below), now still in a research phase, can be placed in public venues to give practical in
Prof Nadia Thalmann (right) with Nadine, a humanoid that looks almost like a human, with a full head of hair and dewy skin. Researchers hope in future, Edgar 2, now still in a research phase, can be placed in public venues to give practical information to people.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

She looks human, chats and can keep kids, elderly company; she even has a temper

She may not be sparkly like C-3PO, the golden droid of Star Wars fame, but humanoid robot Nadine glows with a charm of her own.

She can hold a conversation, remember what she was told previously, and gets angry if insulted. To top it all off, she looks almost like a human being, with a full head of hair and dewy skin.

Nadine was one of two robots unveiled yesterday by researchers from the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Institute for Media Innovation. Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of the institute and Nadine's creator, believes humanoid robots like Nadine could be a solution for an ageing population and shrinking workforce.

She said: "Social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce problem by becoming personal companions for children and the elderly at home. They can even serve as a platform for healthcare services in the future."

The other robot star was Edgar, who, unlike Nadine, is clad in plastic and metal, the more recognisable robot skin.

Nadine, who was built at a cost of $300,000, appears more human as she was built as a companion robot. Edgar was built to dispense knowledge instead of hugs.


Researchers hope in future, Edgar 2 (above), now still in a research phase, can be placed in public venues to give practical information to people. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

NTU scientists have built two versions of Edgar, at a cost of $40,000 each. Edgar 1 is a robotic avatar, the physical representation of a human user who could be miles away.

By standing in front of a special webcam, the user's face and expressions will be displayed on Edgar 1's "face", which is essentially a projection screen. Edgar 1 can also mimic the user's upper body movements.

NTU Associate Professor Gerald Seet, who led the development of Edgar, said telepresence offered another dimension to mobility.

He said: "The user may project his or her physical presence at one or more locations simultaneously, meaning geography is no longer an obstacle... You could attend classes or business meetings all over the world using robot proxies, saving time and travel costs."

In comparison, Edgar 2 is more autonomous than Edgar 1 and does not need a human user to direct his movements.

Researchers hope that within the next decade, Edgar 2, now still in a research phase, can be placed in public venues such as shopping malls, airports and tourist attractions to give practical information, such as directions, to visitors.

Already, the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group - Japan's biggest bank - is testing the use of robot employees at some of its branches. Called Nao, these robots can speak 19 languages, greet and respond to customers by analysing their facial expressions and tone of voice, among other things.

"Over the past four years, our team at NTU has been fostering cross-disciplinary research in social robotics technologies... to transform a virtual human from within a computer into a physical being that is able to observe and interact with other humans," said Prof Thalmann.

"This is somewhat like a real companion that is always with you and conscious of what is happening.

"So in the future, these socially intelligent robots could be like C-3PO, the iconic golden droid from Star Wars, with knowledge of language and etiquette."

In other words, these could be the droids mankind is looking for.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Say 'hi' to Nadine, the companion robot'. Print Edition | Subscribe