Robotics Trends recently reported on an interesting conversational robot currently under development by Hoaloha Robotics. Hoaloha was founded by Tandy Trower, former robotics lead at Microsoft. The goal of the company is to make a robot that can act as a well-rounded assistant to older adults and that can be purchased from somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Trower made a post to the company’s blog recently that provided some insights into the status of the team’s development activities and to the overall design of their robot.
Trower writes about the fact that his team was primarily focused on building software for the assistive robot. They’d expected to be able to use hardware built by another company, but it turned out that they couldn’t find anything that met their specifications and cost constraints. As a result, they ended up building their own hardware.
As for the software, Trower’s design originally foresaw a robot that wasn’t conversational at all. He’s so skeptical of the current state of speech recognition and conversational software that he didn’t want users to talk to the robot. Instead, he wanted them to interact with it via a touchscreen. But in early trials, users kept trying to control the robot by speaking to it! So he eventually gave in.
Trower writes in his blog that he is very disappointed with the “lack of a true conversational experience” for all speech interfaces, even those with supposedly more sophisticated search-based conversational agents such as Google Now and Siri. For the Hoaloha robot, he plans to includes several features that can help to increase its ability to interact with human dialog partners more effectively. Their robot will be able to know that someone is nearby, for example, and will have the ability track when the last conversation took place, what it was about, and the history of other conversations during the day.
Based on Trower’s discussion about the Hoaloha assistive robot, it sounds like he’s trying to develop a truly conversational companion. He’s going where most robotics manufacturers are still afraid to venture. The closest competitor to Trower’s vision that I’ve seen is Kirobo, the talking astronaut companion. I’m not sure of the range of Kirobo’s conversational abilities though, and how they compare to the Hoaloha assistant.
This is most definitely a company to keep an eye on. It’ll be interested to see how their research progresses and when they’re able to bring a working prototype to market.