Electronic Design

Robot Receptionist Offers Detailed Directions... And Good Gossip

Valerie, the new receptionist at Newell-Simon Hall at Carnegie Mellon University, likes to chat with friends on the phone, has had her share of dating troubles, and hopes to be a lounge singer someday. She's also a robot. Researchers at the university's Robotics Institute and School of Drama teamed up to create a virtual employee that features a lot of personality while getting the job done.

A highly expressive female face is displayed on a computer monitor, which is attached to a pan-tilt head on an iRobot commercial robot. A SICK AG laser scanner tracks visitors as they move around Valerie's workstation. Visitors can type questions into a keyboard, and Valerie responds through computer-generated speech.

"We've wanted a robotic presence in the computer science building for nearly 10 years, especially since we're now focused on human-robot social interaction," says Reid G. Simmons, research professor at the Robotics Institute. "At the same time, we wanted to make Valerie interesting to the inhabitants of the building. To keep her interesting, we thought she should be a storyteller."

Anne Mundell, associate professor of the school of drama, worked with her students to write Valerie's dialogue and develop her character. Mundell and her students also modeled Valerie's facial expressions, while Simmons and his students put a moving muscular structure underneath them. The fine arts students' expressions and dialogue are incorporated into Valerie using robotics software.

Face-recognition technologies aren't sophisticated enough for Valerie to say hello to familiar folks as they walk through the door. But if they swipe an ID card through her reader, she'll say hi, provide fresh gossip, and even say happy birthday if it's the right occasion. And it doesn't matter if visitors want to know how to get to the dean's office or just find out about Valerie's date with Vern the Roomba vacuum cleaner. She's always happy to oblige.

For details, go to www.roboceptionist.com.

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