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The 'human' side of robots at electronics show
By Sophie ESTIENNE
Las Vegas (AFP) Jan 9, 2015


Highlights from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show
Las Vegas (AFP) Jan 9, 2015 - Here are 10 key highlights from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped up Friday in Las Vegas:

1. Drones: flying devices in dozens of shapes and sizes made an impact, from the wrist-worn Nixie drone to the AirDog for extreme sports. The proliferation puts pressure on US regulators to create a framework for flying unmanned devices.

2. Advanced TVs: Television manufacturers have finally brought down prices of the latest super-high resolution displays, giving consumers an incentive to upgrade, and showed off technology that goes "beyond 4K," the ultra-high definition system that is growing. Samsung showed a 103-inch bendable display

3. Autos: The latest advances in connected vehicles and autonomous driving made CES an important venue for the auto sector. A prototype Mercedes-Benz took a spin without a driver on the streets of Las Vegas, and Hyundai unveiled a smartwatch that control some car functions.

4. Alternative transport: Several startups showed their new "un-Segway" personal transportation devices, using one, two and three wheels, aiming for greener options for short-distance commutes.

5. Wearables: The "digital coach" employs sensors embedded in garments or in small activity trackers, startups and large firms introduced apps to track activity, oxygen levels and motions such as golf swings, giving professional coaching advice to the amateur athlete. Other wearables included an expanded array of smartwatches and medical wearables that measure body fat or capture brain signals to get a handle on stress.

6. Intel button: Intel made a big push to be at the heart of the two billion items expected to be connected, with a button-sized module called "Curie," aiming to stake its claim to the "Internet of Things."

7. Lifelike robot: The star of the robotics displays, Toshiba's humanoid robot Chihira Aico was so eerily human-like it fooled some showgoers with her facial and hand expressions. She spoke to passersby and sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

8. Virtual reality: Technology took another step into a new dimension with new, immersive devices such as the Oculus Rift prototype headset Crescent Bay, and advances in 3D audio.

9. Connected home: Startups and big industrial giants offered new ways to make the home more connected, with smart lightbulbs and door locks, smartphone-controlled security systems and doorbells that monitor entrances.

10. Selfie stick: One of the least expensive devices at the show -- as low as $5 -- was a big hit,with accessory makers capitalizing on the selfie trend with monopods that offer a wider perspective.

She stood on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show, carried on conversations, blinked her eyes and sang a convincing rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

It would have been unremarkable if Chihira Aico were not a robot.

"Hello, my name is Chihira Aico. I am 32 years old, although, technically, I was born in September 2014. Look how expressive I am!" she said.

Robots like Toshiba's are becoming so eerily realistic they could be mistaken at first glance for a human. She sings, smiles, raises her hands and has lifelike facial expressions controlled by 15 tiny pneumatic actuators.

These robots are increasingly being developed as personal assistants, companions, hosts and aides for medical situations.

"We made her like a human being because true communication is also based on facial expressions and gestures," said Toshiba's Taihei Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi said a robot like Chihira Aico could serve as a kind of hostess for the 2020 Olympic Games but the design is aimed for health care, where robots can assist in monitoring and diagnoses.

But in her own words: "In the future, I want to take up the challenge of a wide assignment of tasks: counsellor, newscaster, cheerleader, entertainer and many others!"

The speech was pre-programmed and it will take time to develop the kinds of science fiction robots which can respond to language and move autonomously, Yamaguchi said.

It is possible, as Toshiba showed, to develop robots that look like humans.

But there remains a debate whether robots should be designed as humanoids, like in the film "Blade Runner," or as mechanical ones like in "Star Wars."

Another vision of the robot, "Meccanoid", from the toymaker Spin Master, has a body of polycarbonate Erector set pieces with large lamps for eyes. It too can speak from a pre-programmed text.

South Korean-based Future Robot showed a whimsical wheeled robot that was a cross between a mechanical and human shape, with a face drawn on tablet computer for the head.

"It can move by itself," said Future Robot's Si-Hyeon Kim, who adds that the robot can recognize and speak to a person who approaches.

Such a robot can offer several types of services for business.

"You can customize it, it can do advertising, ticket printing, banking services," he said.

- 'Not scary' -

Some of the other CES robots are being marketed as personal home assistants, like the 70-centimeter (27-inch) hourglass robot Sopo from US-based Optobotics.

"It can bring you a drink," said Kevin Shah, sales and arketing manager for the firm.

"It can drive around by itself without bumping on anything," Shah added.

"Children and pets love it ... thanks to its welcoming feeling, it's not scary."

Some developers say a non-human, playful design is more welcoming.

Jon-Michel Sereda at Five Elements Robotics said the company's Budgee robot -- a wheeled cylinder with an oval cartoon-like head on a stick "looks friendly, not too robotic, scary looking or intimidating."

The robot can follow someone and carry things, which can be useful for elderly persons or hospital patients.

"We built it with the idea of helping handicapped people in a wheelchair," he said.


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