There is a robot that I have fallen in love with. I never saw him but only read a story in a newspaper about him. That leaves me free to project my hopes and desires unto this unwitting machine. His name is Hall Object and, as a robot, it has no practical use whatsoever. Or does it? It makes an impressive but otherwise dull hall of a building more gezellig. My colleague Elif was was reminded of a rabbit called Nabaztag. But while the makers of the world’s first artificial, smart rabbit are doing everything they can to make sure that your Nabaztag is functional as well as cute, Hall Object’s sole purpose is to be in a good or bad mood and react (or not) to other people in the hall:

[Hall Object] can decide to be in an certain mood and act accordingly. When it picks up signals through its sensors – from people passing by for instance – it can come toward you, showing affection, or it can turn away or ignore you and keep to himself. 

Does he socialize more easily than me? (source)

Since the 26th of october Hall Object lives in the hall of the NPS/VARA-gebouw on the ediapark in Hilversum. It is a work of art by Studio Job. I think it illustrates the only real function robots and other AI gadgets have at the moment: a social function. We find them funny, amazing, or cuddly. We project emotions on them, or even attitudes or intentions. And Hall Object is the perfect object to project stuff on, because he is blanco. An empty thing, doing just enough to be noticed, and leaving spectators free to see and think what they want.

Let us link this to Robot Asimo, who applies gesture technology for social functioning: if you wave at him, he waves back (see video). It is simple but effective. A little bit of acknowledgement of our human existence immediately sparks our imagination: “If it can see that I am here, it may have an attitude toward me. He may be watching me. He might react to what I will do. He may not like it? etc. etc.”

Asimo responds to several gestures (source and events he picks up:

  • Asimo follows a person, then stops when when it hears a command and sees a hand gesture.
  • Asimov watches a person point to where it is supposed to go, confirms by speaking, and walks over.
  • Listening to two speakers, Asimov swivels its head to face the person who just spoke.
  • Encountering two moving people, Asimov stops walking to let them pass, then resumes walking.
  • Seeing two stationary people, Asimov walks around them to its destination.
  • When the person waves, Asimov waves back.
  • With two people speaking, Asimov only listens to the one it recognizes.

In my opinion, this is the only viable application of gesture recognition technology I can foresee for the near future, apart from some niche applications and motion sensing in gaming. If a robot catches my gestures and my speech (or even my emotions) it can start to live in the same world as I do. I will no longer have to sit down and enter his realm.

Frankly, now I am in doubt. Should I visit Hall Object or stay away? I live in Hilversum, so he is only a short bike ride away. But it seems I can only lose from this encounter. Will my wonderfull illusions of a gezellige robot survive the confrontation with an actual machine, with the many flaws it will inevitably display upon close inspection? I’ll keep you posted…