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Sunday, Feb. 18, 2007

WEEK 3

SENTIENT ROOMS

TIRED OR EMOTIONAL: A space robot knows


Staff writer

Office meetings occasionally flit between two extremes. Either they're so tedious that you want to sleep, or they take an interesting turn when someone gets hot under the collar and starts ranting without listening to anyone else.

News photo
The computerized "space robot" wall behind SGI Japan's Hiroshi Otsuka glows red and the lights get brighter in the company's Tokyo office to help perk up bored participants in a simulated meeting. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

What's needed in these situations, obviously, is a competent chairperson to set the right atmosphere.

But how about this . . .

When exchanges get so animated that participants are simply shouting and banging their fists, part of the meeting room's walls begins to glow a peaceful pale blue, helping to lower the emotional temperature all round -- even before a lavender scent and wafts of soft jazz really calm things down.

Another meeting, however, might be boring and lacking any sense of involvement, so what's needed to perk things up could be a zephyr of fresh air and a little more lighting to get everyone firing on all cylinders again.

Would a room like that be an asset in your company?

News photo
SGI Japan's "space robot" room in its Tokyo HQ glows blue and plays cool BGM to calm a simulated meeting that's got rather heated.

Space trips and cloned sheep

Well, in this high-tech world where tourists trip into space and sheep get cloned, rooms designed with a view to making office meetings really zing are no longer the stuff of sci-fi.

In fact, eggheads at SGI Japan Ltd., an IT company in Ebisu, Tokyo, have developed a unique technology which, when installed in a room, will respond to occupants' voices and analyze their feelings -- then react appropriately.

It's a system they call a "space robot" -- as opposed to your typical two-legged type.

"When people hear the term 'robot,' they often think of those such as ASIMO, a humanoid robot developed by Honda Motor Co., or robots in Japanese animations," said Hiroshi Otsuka, SGI Japan's vice president for strategic business development.

"But we believe that we definitely need different types of robot in terms of their shapes and their roles in our life. Hints can be found in films such as 'Knight Rider,' 'Star Wars' and '2001: A Space Odyssey.' "

Of course, some might quibble and claim that a room cannot be a robot. But Otsuka has this one nailed.

"Actually, it doesn't belong to the category of conventional industrial robots," he begins. "Also, this is different from two-legged robots. We do not want to cling to the definition. We want to use technology to develop something useful in our life.

"Without having such new types of robot, it will be difficult for the robot market in Japan to continue growing."

In line with that thinking, SGI expanded its IT business and started its robot project in 2000. Other products it has yielded include a "mannequin robot," which is designed to be placed in show windows and move and pose exactly like a fashion brand's models do.

A key element of the space robot is the interface between the machine and people.

In most systems to date, computerized responses have been determined by people touching buttons or keyboards. For the space robot, however, the company has been developing an interface activated by human voices.

In the meeting room, if a user says, "Let's start a presentation," the room adjusts the lighting, lowers the window blinds and sets a screen for images to be projected on.

But in addition, using its sensibility technology (ST), the room also analyzes tone and rhythm of people's voices to know their feelings. It identifies six basic human feelings: laughter, calmness, sorrow, anger, joy and excitement -- and the degree of each emotion.

"If the space robot was programmed to respond only to the meaning of words, communication between it and users would be limited," Otsuka said.

"For instance, if you say 'good morning' to a system that only understands the meaning of the words, it would reply 'good morning' as programmed.

Constructive environments

"But if the system is ST-programmed, it could respond to the tone of the voices as well. If you said 'good morning' in a disgruntled tone, the system might reply saying, 'good morning, you don't sound so good today,' for example."

SGI Japan adapted the system to a meeting-room situation believing their space robot can help to produce more constructive environments, not only through its ability to recognize people's feelings through the tone and rhythm of their voices, but also because it can be programmed in different ways to meet various needs.

In fact, the system's great potential versatility is encouraging the company to think of many other applications, such as in hospitals and senior citizens' homes where the voice-activated interface may be of particular use.

At present, since the system was launched in December, construction companies, hospitals and hotels have been among those contacting SGI, though the company is still awaiting their orders.

"In the 20th century, people associated high technology with great big machines," he said. "But in the 21st century, maybe they will see that the space itself can be the high-tech system without there being anything in particular in the room -- no big machines or computers or anything," Otsuka said.

"For example, when you come into the room and try to take off your jacket, you may instantly be made to feel welcome by the system, which can open a wardrobe and offer you a hanger. We are not saying that it is good or bad for humans -- but we are trying to tell people about the potential of technology today."

Yoji Ikeda, systems engineer and a space-robot project member at SGI Japan, said he sees almost no limit to the potential of their space robot and that of ST.

"When you get home one evening and mutter 'I'm tired' in your living room, probably the lighting will be adjusted a bit lower and your favorite music will come on to soothe you, if your home is equipped with the system," he said.

Turbulent waters

Also he sees no reason why ST technology can't also venture into the turbulent waters of a couple's strife.

"Technology-wise, it's possible," Ikeda said.

"You can program the system so that it recognizes the arguing voices of a couple and responds by, for example, projecting photos of them in their early married bliss on the wall. Or it might play the lapping sound of waves on the beach where the couple spent their honeymoon . . . "

Ah, such techno-bliss and harmony.

Anyone for ST reality, now?



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